Ronald Reagan’s Protector

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tags: Ronald Reagan, nancy reagan



Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of "The Bush Tragedy."

In 1968, the Saturday Evening Post sent a young journalist named Joan Didion to Sacramento, California, to interview the wife of the governor of California. The resulting profile was one Nancy Reagan never forgot or forgave—among other knocks, Didion described Reagan’s smile as a “study in frozen insincerity.” In her memoir, My Turn, written 20 years later, Nancy recalled Didion’s depiction to illustrate how unfairly the press had always treated her.

It’s still worth reading Didion’s mildly cruel vignette, which appears in a softened and abbreviated form in her essay collection The White Album. Didion describes “pretty Nancy Reagan” standing in the dining room of her “rented house” (having rejected the governor’s mansion as not to her liking) taking direction from a television newsman who is asking her to perform for his camera the part of California’s first lady at home on a typical weekday morning. The newsman proposes that Nancy clip some flowers from her garden for an arrangement, which she brightly agrees to do. The cameraman then asks her to rehearse a dry run of clipping the hydrangeas. “Fake the nip,” he tells her. Clearly, Nancy is going to oblige.

The rap against Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday at 94, was essentially Didion’s—that she was a pampered, superficial actress performing a role as a politician’s wife. Having worked as an MGM company player in Hollywood in the early 1950s, Nancy was indeed trained to focus on creating the right kind of appearance to the public. She expected others to subsidize her gowns and jewelry, as well as the Reagans’ homes and parties. The circle of wealthy official friends she cultivated paid for the rented Sacramento house and swimming pool. After Ronald Reagan was elected and the couple arrived in Washington, Nancy and White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver staged the most extravagant inauguration since the Gilded Age. She wore a $10,000 hand-beaded gown by her favorite designer, Galanos. Soon thereafter, she ordered a $400,000 set of new china for the White House. After the Reagans returned to California, the same rich friends paid for their new home in Bel Air, one of the poshest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

What this critique of Nancy as vain and cosseted misses, though, is that she was ultimately much more concerned with her husband’s reputation than with her own, and that she proved the most effective keeper and promoter of it over the course of his political career. Ron without Nancy is unthinkable, first of all because she is the only person he completely loved and trusted, and the only one who made him truly happy. But equally important is the way the wary, suspicious first lady guarded the stature and interests of her ingenuous, trusting husband.

Nancy’s own insecurity and mistrustful instincts grew out of a sad and unstable early childhood. Her father left home even before she was born. Nancy’s bohemian mother, Edith Luckett, neglected her while pursuing a career on the stage. Raised by an aunt in Maryland, Nancy’s only goal was to get to live with her mother. That finally happened when she was 8, after Luckett married Loyal Davis, a socially prominent Chicago neurosurgeon.* Nancy’s subsequent ambition was to have Davis adopt her, which he did several years later. Her hard-won position as the daughter in a stable, prosperous home left her more focused on building a family life of her own than on continuing her promising career as an actress. ...




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