Street Fighter: When Nancy Reagan ran the White House

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1/19/1985 President Reagan and Nancy Reagan at the Inaugural Gala at the Washington DC Convention Center

Ronald Reagan was known in 1940s Hollywood as an actor who always showed up on time, was never hung over, and had his lines memorized.  He was in need of direction, however, and somebody needed to have his back.  Reagan was a curiously trusting figure in the cutthroat environment of the motion picture industry.

Enter Nancy Reagan, at a time when the Gipper was newly divorced, feeling sorry for himself, with his motion picture career on the skids.  As Jimmy Stewart would reportedly say, “If Ronald Reagan had married Nancy the first time around, she could have gotten him the Academy Award.”

As it turned out, however, the love match would impact a country. Nancy Reagan would choreograph and largely direct an American presidency.  The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, by Karen Tumulty (Simon & Schuster, $32.50), chronicles a vastly influential first lady whose backstage clout was finally recognized seven years into the Reagan presidency when she purged her husband’s chief of staff Don Regan.  A few days after Regan stormed out of the White House, Nancy delivered what she insisted were innocent words to the American Camping Association: “I don’t think most people associate me with leeches or how to get them off.  But I know how to get them off.  I’m an expert at it.”

Tumulty has, in her sources, the political equivalent of the gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill.  “He was almost entirely guileless:  There was no cynicism in him,” Ron Reagan says of his father.  Veteran California political consultant Stu Spencer recalls visiting Jane Wyman, the first Mrs. Gipper, to get assurance she would not mess around with Reagan’s first campaign for governor of California.  “She had a little bit of devil in her,” Spencer tells the author.  “She says, ‘I will not tell the world that Ronnie was a lousy lay.’”

Ex-Secretary of State George Shultz, famously guarded through 30 years in public life, opens up about the White House dinner, on a snowy night, in which Nancy Reagan enlisted in the effort to change her husband’s rigid anti-communism and get him to speak with Soviet leaders. Writes Tumulty,  Shultz sensed that “he had found a powerful partner in a first lady who shared his determination to alter the course that Ronnie’s more hard line advisers had set.”

Nancy Reagan would memorably feud with Raisa Gorbachev -– a rivalry topped only by that with Barbara Bush –- but encouraged her husband’s rapport with Mikhail Gorbachev.  She even thawed Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. “I said, Nancy, you’ve just won the Cold War,” Shultz recalls, after she had whispered “Peace” in Gromyko’s ear.

Ronald Reagan was amiable enough, but “detached, remote, and ultimately unknowable,” writes Tumulty. “He was uninterested in details.”  Nor was the Gipper ever able to fire anyone.  In the words of Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, “She was aggressive and a street fighter, which Reagan was not.  She handled all the nasty business.” Feminist writers spent years mocking Nancy Reagan for her adoring upward gaze as “Ronnie” delivered lines she had heard dozens of times before.  She brought no agenda to compare with Eleanor Roosevelt’s social-justice advocacy, or Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification campaign.  But her agenda was Ronnie. What’s ignored, Tumulty points out, was Nancy’s singular unsparing, canny commitment to her husband’s success.

The first lady was a pragmatist who shoved aside Reagan’s more ideological advisers and recognized those trying to use White House status to improve their own.  She exercised enormous firing power.  The victims ranged from Ronnie’s first chief of staff as governor, to the manager of his 1980 presidential campaign, to pompous and status-conscious Secretary of State Al Haig, to anti-environmental Interior Secretary James Watt, to far-right communications director Patrick Buchanan.  The final purge, with Reagan long out of office, was excising three outspoken conservatives from the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Given the roster of those exiled, never has any American been so deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  The underlying purpose was best described by presidential historian Richard Neustadt, “”Her husband’s close associates, no matter how valuable or liked or even loved, were to be sacrificed, in her view, from the moment their continuation on the scene could compromise the president’s public relations. When it came to people, her targets seem well chosen, aim unerring, and timing right for someone who must wait for someone else to pull the trigger.”

The power player was a former Grade B Hollywood actress who had set her sights on Ronnie and took a couple years to reel him in.  The couple were totally devoted to each other, to the point where even the four children (two from Ronnie’s first marriage) felt left out.  They experienced his remoteness. The Gipper was speaker at the prep school graduation of his adopted son Michael.  He greeted each graduate with the same words, including Michael:  “My name is Ronald Reagan. What’s yours.” Michael Reagan tore off his mortar board, saying “Remember me. I’m your son Mike.” “Oh, I didn’t recognize you,” said his father.

Nancy Reagan was initially lampooned in Washington, D.C., for her $250,000 purchase (with donated money) of new White House china, for “borrowing” and not returning designer clothes, and such friendships as with celebrated Manhattan “walker” Jerry Zipkin.  By 1987, however, NYT columnist William Safire was comparing her to Edith Wilson, who more-or-less ran the government after Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 stroke.

What struck fear?  Tumulty recalls a regular performance from years when I was in D.C. Nancy Reagan would lunch with conservative columnist George F. Will, the man renowned for quoting 19th Century British prime ministers.  Well-connected Washington would hold its breath for Will’s next columns, to see who was on Nancy’s hit list.

The most famous was Will’s 1987 description of fawningly loyal Vice President George H.W. Bush: “The unpleasant sound Bush is emitting as he traipses from one conservative gathering to another is a thin, tinny ‘arf’ – the sound of a lapdog.”  Two years later, I joined other scribes for a White House interview with now-first lady Barbara Bush. The Silver Fox showed us around the living quarters delivering wicked asides, notably poking fun at Nancy’s wardrobe space.

The entertaining asides in Tumulty’s book are revealing.  They show a first lady working for peace and rapprochement, successfully persuading a balky spouse to deal with the “evil empire” and its leader.  (Nancy Reagan hoped her husband would be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, which would go to Gorbachev, alone, in 1990.) And with the Reagan White House rocked by the Iran-Control scandal, it was Nancy Reagan who showed its architects the door.

“Ronnie’s presidency had been pulled back from the abyss, and to a degree that he himself most likely had not recognized,” writes Tumulty.  “Nancy had run the rescue operation. She was more attuned to the danger than her husband was, and a sharper judge of character . . . Nancy came through for Ronnie when so many of the supposedly smart men in his administration had failed him.”

Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist and was for years a hardworking reporter on the presidential campaign trail, not one of the repetitive ones you see on Cable TV. The Triumph of Nancy Reagan is her first book.  It is the best treatment of the Reagan years since Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The role of a lifetime nearly three decades ago.  Several of the book’s key sources, e.g. George Shultz and Edmund Morris, have recently passed away. The reader can be happy Tumulty was able to share their candor.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great column. This and some takes from Tumulty’s book have given me a new perspective on Nancy Reagan. I probably still wouldn’t like her, but at least I now have reasons to respect her.
    Thanks

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