A Team for the Ages

Nancy Reagan always had her husband's back, making her one of the most remarkable first ladies in our history

Yes, there was that astrologer whom she apparently consulted while giving foreign policy advice to her husband, the leader of the free world. And let's not forget her war on drugs, which she termed "Just Say No" — regarded today as an ineffective strategy and, applied as public policy, devastating to so many lives. Still, I admired Nancy Reagan.

Let's begin with the results of the recent Siena College poll ranking the greatest first ladies. (The poll tested 10 qualities, including courage, public image, value to the president and "being her own woman.") The rankings: 1. Eleanor Roosevelt; 2. Abigail Adams; 3. Jacqueline Kennedy; 4. Dolley Madison; 5. Michelle Obama (new to the list); 6. Hillary Clinton; 7. Lady Bird Johnson; 8. Betty Ford; 9. Martha Washington;

10. Rosalynn Carter.

Nancy Reagan is nowhere to be found on this list, nor on any list that I've looked at. Frankly, some people just didn't like her — including my late mother. A strong supporter of President Reagan, she referred to Nancy as a "Barbie doll."

A bit of revealing history might help explain why I'm so out of touch with the mainstream when it comes to Mrs. Reagan. It's the summer of 1983, and Washington, D.C., is getting ready for its annual Fourth of July celebration on the Mall; everyone was expecting another fun performance by the Beach Boys — mainstays whose music appealed to three generations.

Then came the shocking news that Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, had announced that all rock bands attracted "the wrong element," and instead he had opted for a "wholesome" program. After announcing the Beach Boys' replacement, he went on: "We're not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism."

And whom did he select to provide that "wholesome program?" Wayne Newton, the lounge lizard from Vegas!

Watt was a moralizing fundamentalist from Wyoming who Reagan chose to lead Interior because he wanted to appease his "Sagebrush Rebellion" constituency. This same constituency is alive and well in today's Republican Party — would-be federal land grabbers (think the Bundys and their ilk in Oregon, as well as Ted Cruz, who wants to auction off federal land; if Politifact is right, his benefactors include the Koch Brothers, who would be first in line to grab the land.)

Seems Watt didn't know that the Beach Boys were longtime friends of the Reagans. Watt would be gone within months. My guess is that Nancy seized on the first opportunity to orchestrate his departure, just as we know she orchestrated the departure of any number of other top administration players she decided were bad for her husband.

The recent New York Review of Books review of a book about Ronald Reagan, written by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, speaks to her influence. While showing respect for Nancy's devotion to her husband, the authors criticize her for "meddling and over-protectiveness." The reviewer, Nicholas Lemann, writes: "The moment that Nancy Reagan seems to lose them is when she arranges the firings, in rapid succession, of Donald Regan, Raymond Donovan, Margaret Heckler, Patrick Buchanan and William Casey."

That would be Reagan's Chief of Staff, his Secretary of Labor, his Secretary of Health and Human Services, his Communications Director and his Director of Central Intelligence. You didn't mess with Nancy Reagan.

Nancy regarded Don Regan to be the ultimate sexist. She seemingly just liked another guy better for Donovan's job. Buchanan was involved in Reagan's second-worst PR disaster, that trip to Bitburg to honor German soldiers buried there — many of whom were Waffen-SS. Casey was likely identified too closely with Iran-Contra. (Nancy, it's worth noting, orchestrated her husband's apology on that debacle, weak though it was.)

She also gets credit for convincing her husband to drop his "Evil Empire" talk, moderate his rhetoric and move towards working with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose arrival on the stage was a stroke of luck.

Meddling? Over-protectiveness? Not at all. Her husband's reputation was at stake, and she alone, by 1985, had to have known what the rest of the country would find out later — that Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's and his condition was progressing.

Not to be overlooked: On the style front, she gave even Jackie Kennedy a run for her money. Nancy, after all, was pure Rodeo Drive. She brought elegance and grace to the White House.

Still, my personal choice for greatest first lady of all time is Abigail Adams, who came onto the stage at a critical time in our history and played so many roles so well — confidant, supporter, partner, mother, farm manager, activist, patriot, conciliator and wonderful letter writer. In one way, though, she and Nancy were one. Historian Joseph Ellis puts it best: "Abigail and John remained resolute, infinitely resilient, the invulnerable center." He could have been writing about Nancy and Ronald Reagan.♦

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.