First lady’s mission was backer of ‘Ronnie’

Christopher Weber
Associated Press

Los Angeles — First lady Nancy Reagan swept into the White House in 1981, a swirl of designer gowns and pricey china, and was quickly dismissed as a pre-feminist throwback concerned only with fashion, decorating and entertaining. She needed a less frivolous image. And she got it.

By the time she packed up eight years later, the former movie actress was fending off accusations that she had become a “dragon lady,” wielding secret, unchecked power within Ronald Reagan’s administration — and doing it based on astrology to boot.

All along she maintained that her only mission was to back her “Ronnie” and strengthen his presidency.

“I’m a woman who loves her husband,” she said, “and I make no apologies for looking out for his personal and political welfare.”

Mrs. Reagan died Sunday at her home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. She was 94.

She was Ronald Reagan’s closest adviser and fierce protector throughout his journey from Hollywood actor to governor to president — and finally during his 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She served as his full-time caregiver as his mind melted away, and after his death in 2004 dedicated herself to tending to his legacy through his presidential library in Simi Valley, California.

She also championed Alzheimer’s patients, raising millions of dollars for research and breaking with fellow conservative Republicans to advocate for stem cell research.

Her dignity and perseverance in these post-White House roles smoothed out public perceptions of Nancy Reagan that had been fickle as far back as her days as first lady of California.

If Reagan was the Teflon president, family friend and former aide Michael Deaver wrote, then Mrs. Reagan was the “flypaper first lady.” Controversies always stuck to her.

Their differences complemented each other, to the president’s advantage.

“She took on the tough jobs that Reagan wouldn’t or couldn’t handle: particularly staff decisions that were sure to make enemies,” Deaver wrote in a sympathetic memoir of working with Mrs. Reagan.

The couple’s mutual devotion over 52 years of marriage was legendary. 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.

Anne Frances Robbins, nicknamed Nancy, was born 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 left show business and married Dr. Loyal Davis, a wealthy Chicago neurosurgeon. He 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.

In 1949, MGM signed Nancy Davis to a movie contract. Acting was never a career, she said, just something to do until she got married. It led her to 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 mistakenly published on a 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.”

She was 30 years old when 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 prior marriage to actress Jane Wyman. (Later, spats and breaches with her rebellious grown children would become a frequent source of embarrassment for Mrs. Reagan.)

She was thrust into political life when her husband ran for governor in 1966, and found it too rough. “The movies were custard compared to politics,” said Mrs. Reagan, who spent eight years as California’s first lady.

As the nation’s first lady, 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.”

She won better press coverage for her travels across the U.S. promoting the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign for kids and teens helped develop a more serious, sympathetic conception of the first lady.

Her substantial influence within the White House came to light only slowly in her husband’s second term and afterward. Her familiar stare and frozen smile, formerly disparaged as Barbie-doll vacant, began to be described as steely. She famously helped drive out chief of staff Donald Regan after the Iran-Contra scandal broke under his watch in late 1986.

Near the end of Reagan’s presidency, Regan took his revenge with a memoir revealing that the first lady routinely used a San Francisco astrologer’s forecasts to guide the president’s daily schedule.

Mrs. Reagan also weathered unflattering portrayals in books by daughter Patti Davis. In her memoir, “My Turn,” Mrs. Reagan called their estrangement “one of the most painful and disappointing aspects of my life.” But Davis reconciled with her parents after her father’s illness was disclosed, and she was there holding her mother’s hand at his funeral service.

Mrs. Reagan spoke of how terribly she missed her husband in her final years. In 2009 she told Vanity Fair magazine how she had pressed evangelist Billy Graham for reassurance that they would be reunited after death.

“I said to him, ‘Just tell me if I’m going to be with Ronnie again. Just tell me that and I’ll be OK.’

“He said, ‘You are.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ ”