In the Suburbs: Nancy Reagan had remarkable style, strength
Amid the political screaming and yelling from wannabe Republican presidential candidates, we stopped to remember Nancy Reagan, former first lady and tiny powerhouse protector of her beloved Ronnie. Nancy Reagan, who died at 94 in California last weekend, was from an era when first ladies, through quiet dignity, were redefining their role and I applaud her efforts.
I chuckled earlier in the week when a newscaster said that Nancy played a strong role in planning her funeral and preparing the guest list, and that it would be a private affair for about 1,000 people at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The woman had style and elegance, and she’ll be leaving this world that way.
There were times when Nancy Reagan wasn’t the most well liked first lady. She was criticized for her consistent, sometimes rigid protective behavior of her husband; for spending too much on frivolity like $200,000 chinaware for the White House and traveling to Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding; and chastised for consulting an astrologer to help plan the president’s schedule. According to accounts I read, Mrs. Reagan “had a knack for inviting controversy.”
According to Lois Romano of the Washington Post, who wrote, I believe, an excellent tribute to the former first lady, “The controversies during her years as first lady often obscured her profound influence on one of the most popular presidents in modern history. They were a universe of two, and their legendary devotion helped define the Reagan presidency.”
Romano also quoted Frederick J. Ryan Jr., the Washington Post’s publisher and chief executive, along with being chairman of the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Said Ryan, “She set the standard that first ladies will aspire to for many years to come. Her contributions to the success of Ronald Reagan’s presidency may never be fully appreciated.”
From my perspective, during her years in the White House, Nancy Reagan displayed a strong sense of character and sophistication, despite criticism. I was always impressed by her quiet, but outspoken nature.
Particularly after President Reagan was nearly assassinated by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981, she insisted on maintaining privacy and dignity throughout Reagan’s convalescence, often butting heads with senior aides, according to Romano. And she was Reagan’s caregiver for a decade as his health deteriorated from Alzheimer’s disease. Said Romano, “His illness prompted Mrs. Reagan to openly challenge the George W. Bush administration and other conservatives who sought to limit research on embryonic stem cells, work that scientists thought could present a cure for Alzheimer’s.”
In his tribute to Nancy Reagan, President Obama said Mrs. Reagan had “redefined” the role of first lady and praised her for becoming an advocate for Alzheimer’s disease treatments and research after her husband was diagnosed in 2004.
And expanding on the word “advocate,” reporter Romano reminded me about the accomplishments Nancy Reagan will be remembered for. “As first lady of California, when her husband was governor, Mrs. Reagan was an outspoken advocate for returning Vietnam War veterans … In Washington, Mrs. Reagan’s most prominent initiative as first lady was the ‘Just Say No’ drug awareness campaign, aimed at preventing recreational drug use among young people.
Perhaps the saddest part for me about Romano’s coverage was the mention of various family issues, especially the alleged abuse of their daughter Patti mentioned in Patti’s memoir, “The Way I See It.” Former President Reagan’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease brought the two women together and they remained close.
Mrs. Reagan’s relationships with Michael Reagan and his older sister, the late Maureen, were also strained many years, but both reconciled with Nancy and Ronnie eventually.
Nancy Reagan never saw herself in the background as first lady. As a matter of fact, she evolved into the president’s closest advisor in the President’s inner circle, often contributing to staffing and political decisions.
One of my most vivid memories of Nancy Reagan dates to the funeral for Ronald Reagan in 2004. It was the touching picture of Nancy laying her head on the former president’s casket as it lay in state at the Ronald Reagan Library in California.
I will always remember Mrs. Reagan’s grace and beauty, but more than anything, I’ll remember her outspoken nature. Whether controversial or not, she made an indelible mark in our history.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.