Tributes pour in for Nancy Reagan

Posted at 11:44 AM, Mar 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-07 07:03:17-05

NEW YORK (AP) -- Unlike other presidential wives, Nancy Reagan didn't testify before Congress about health care, celebrate controversial Supreme Court decisions or sit in on Cabinet meetings.

"She never emerged as a political player in her own right. Nor did she seek to," says historian David Greenberg, the author of "Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency."

PHOTOS: Remembering Nancy Reagan

"On the other hand, neither did she confine herself to the domestic sphere. And by taking an active role in her husband's business, she helped to reconcile conservatism to the reality of women's changing roles. Her views may have been conservative, but her political involvement implied that it wasn't improper for women to participate in what conservatives considered the man's sphere."

Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, wasn't out to break the rules of being first lady. But she knew well how to work within them.

Ronald Reagan had promised to champion conservative values when elected in 1980, and Nancy Reagan was in some ways a throwback to a more old-fashioned approach. Her immediate predecessor, Rosalynn Carter, had attended Cabinet meetings.

Betty Ford had spoken candidly about gun control, premarital sex and her surgery for breast cancer and praised the ruling of Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to abortion, as "the best thing in the world." In the 1990s, Hillary Clinton would try (and fail) to overhaul the country's health care system.

Nancy Reagan's most public issue was more in line with expectations for first ladies: her "Just Say No" to drugs campaign, which she launched after a schoolgirl asked what to do if someone offered her drugs. The effectiveness of "Just Say No" remains in dispute, but it became a catchphrase (and punchline) for the 1980s and part of an effort that included drug-free zones and "zero tolerance" policies in schools. Reagan herself gave speeches and even made a cameo appearance on the NBC sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes."

Reagan had other causes and in her post-Washington years openly broke with conservatives by advocating (and allying herself with the liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy) for embryonic stem cell research for Alzheimer's, the disease which afflicted her husband. But while first lady, she stated most of her opinions in private. Often in tandem with such White House moderates as Chief of Staff James Baker and longtime adviser Michael Deaver, she favored better relations with the Soviet Union, opposed high military spending and urged the president to speak openly about AIDS.

Her prevailing ambition was to help her husband, and she did so in uncommonly forceful style.

"Ronald Reagan was a striver, but his striving was masked by his courteous, amiable manner and enduring fatalism," biographer Lou Cannon wrote in "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime." ''Hers (Nancy's) was out in the open, all cards on the table, for anyone to see. With a directness unusual either in Hollywood or Washington, Nancy Reagan favored anyone who helped her husband or advanced his career and opposed anyone who was in his way. She put people off, while he put them at their ease."

Nancy Reagan acknowledged the limits of her influence. In her memoir, "My Turn," she wrote of her husband that "he often seems remote, and he doesn't let anybody get too close. There's a wall around him." Sometimes, she added, "even I feel that barrier." In his book, Cannon noted that the president ignored her advice on military spending and resisted her and many others before agreeing to fire Baker's unpopular successor as chief of staff, Donald Regan.

Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, who spent three years around the Reagans while he was president, was dismissive of Nancy's political influence. But he did cite her importance to him personally, as someone who managed his finances and other everyday details, and as a "street fighter" who protected her husband from "predators." He likened her to Edith Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt.

"Both Reagan and TR tended to like everybody and were easily taken advantage of," Morris says. "And both of these women, Nancy and Edith, were good at keeping away these conniving, predatory people, whether they were office seekers or lobbyists."

Greenberg says Nancy Reagan wasn't "ideologically driven," like many of his aides.

"For that reason, she should get credit, with James Baker and Michael Deaver, for helping him to avoid some of the pitfalls that a consistently hard-right presidency would have encountered," Greenberg says. "Her protectiveness served him well overall."

The Reagans' mutual devotion over 52 years of marriage was legendary. They were forever holding hands. She watched his political speeches with a look of such steady adoration it was dubbed "the gaze." He called her "Mommy," and penned a lifetime of gushing love notes. She saved these letters, published them as a book, and found them a comfort when he could no longer remember her.

In announcing his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994, Reagan wrote, "I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience." Ten years later, as his body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol, Mrs. Reagan caressed and gently kissed the flag-draped casket.

As the newly arrived first lady, Mrs. Reagan raised more than $800,000 from private donors to redo the White House family quarters and to buy a $200,000 set of china bordered in red, her signature color. She was criticized for financing these pet projects with donations from millionaires who might seek influence with the government, and for accepting gifts and loans of dresses worth thousands of dollars from top designers. Her lavish lifestyle — in the midst of a recession and with her husband's administration cutting spending on the needy — inspired the mocking moniker "Queen Nancy."

But her admirers credited Mrs. Reagan with restoring grace and elegance to the White House after the austerity of the Carter years.

Her substantial influence within the White House came to light slowly in her husband's second term.

Although a feud between the first lady and chief of staff Donald Regan had spilled into the open, the president dismissed reports that it was his wife who got Regan fired. "The idea that she is involved in governmental decisions and so forth and all of this, and being a kind of dragon lady — there is nothing to that," a visibly angry Reagan assured reporters.

But Mrs. Reagan herself and other insiders later confirmed her role in rounding up support for Regan's ouster and persuading the president that it had to be done, because of the Iran-Contra scandal that broke under Regan's watch.

She delved into policy issues, too. She urged Reagan to finally break his long silence on the AIDS crisis. She nudged him to publicly accept responsibility for the arms-for-hostages scandal. And she worked to buttress those advisers urging him to thaw U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, over the objections of the administration's "evil empire" hawks.

Near the end of Reagan's presidency, ex-chief of staff Regan took his revenge with a memoir revealing that the first lady routinely consulted a San Francisco astrologer to guide the president's schedule. Mrs. Reagan, who had a longtime interest in horoscopes, maintained that she used the astrologer's forecasts only in hopes of predicting the safest times for her husband to venture out of the White House after an assassination attempt by John Hinckley just three months into Reagan's presidency.

Anne Frances Robbins, nicknamed Nancy, was born on July 6, 1921, in New York City. Her parents separated soon after she was born and her mother, film and stage actress Edith Luckett, went on the road. Nancy was reared by an aunt until 1929, when her mother married Dr. Loyal Davis, a wealthy Chicago neurosurgeon who gave Nancy his name and a socialite's home. She majored in drama at Smith College and found stage work with the help of her mother's connections.

Flowers left at Reagan Library following first lady's death

In 1949, MGM signed 5-foot-4, doe-eyed brunette Nancy Davis to a movie contract. She was cast mostly as a loyal housewife and mother. She had a key role in "The Next Voice You Hear ...," an unusual drama about a family that hears God's voice on the radio. In "Donovan's Brain," she played the wife of a scientist possessed by disembodied gray matter.

She met Ronald Reagan in 1950, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and she was seeking help with a problem: Her name had been wrongly included on a published list of suspected communist sympathizers. They discussed it over dinner, and she later wrote that she realized on that first blind date "he was everything that I wanted."

They wed two years later, on March 4, 1952. Daughter Patti was born in October of that year and son Ron followed in 1958. Reagan already had a daughter, Maureen, and an adopted son, Michael, from his marriage to actress Jane Wyman. (Later, public spats and breaches with her grown children would become a frequent source of embarrassment for Mrs. Reagan.)

She was thrust into the political life when her husband ran for California governor in 1966 and won. She found it a surprisingly rough business.

"The movies were custard compared to politics," Mrs. Reagan said.