‘The woman Ronald Reagan calls Mommie’
Profile of former first lady Nancy Reagan, first published in 1986
US president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy on their wedding anniversary in the White House on March 4th, 1985. Photograph: Reuters
In the city on the banks of the Potomac where the US president and his wife hold court, Nancy Reagan stories are part of Washingtoniana.
So writes Elgy Gillespie in a profile of the woman who, some say, has suffered a worse press than any first lady who came before her.
Every reporter who covers the White House sooner or later mentions “the Gaze”.
It’s that look Nancy gives her husband when a camera points their way; the one that preserves plums, sends diabetics reeling, and puts you in mind of the lowly oxen in the manger, all at once.
It has been described by Reagan’s most favoured reporter, Lou Cannon of the Washington Post, as “a kind of transfixed adoration, more appropriate to a witness of the Virgin Birth”.
Reagan always lets Cannon away with it, and a lot more besides. But when, the quote was first published, Nancy was so furious she ripped the page out of her copy of Cannon’s book.
“The Gaze” is agreed by all to be sincere. Not even the wicked, liberal Post would deny that Nancy’s 1950s-style lapdog admiration of Reagan at least equals, if not exceeds, her acting.
But it doesn’t quite mean worship; it means protection, pride.
“Nancy is an easy target for the press,” writes Lou Cannon in his biography of Reagan. “Her husband can mangle statistics, distort facts, forget his legislative programme, yet somehow emerge as a big, likeable lug of a citizen-politician striving to do his best for all the citizens . . .”
But not Nancy. “She can turn on all the charm, say all the right things, and come across as brittle, suspicious and shallow” is his verdict.
Ironically, “the Gaze” is quite unnecessary. The president is a most uxorious man, and truly sentimental. He says he went to pieces after his marriage with Jane Wyman broke up, until he found Nancy.
Neither was doing well at the time. Tears come to his eyes when asked what kind of a woman she is, just as they often come to hers when asked about him.
“How do you describe coming into a warm room from out of the cold? . . . never waking up bored?” is his way of describing it all.
Nancy’s secret servicemen gave her a hankie for a birthday present so she could have it handy for a rough columnist; or for the next time somebody asked that kind of question.
When she was on her own in Kuala Lumpur recently she put a photo of the president beside her bed and she has said that she knows exactly how many nights they have spent apart in 40 years of marriage, though she won’t reveal the total.
In this society of the rapid turnover, most people suspect a mutual exclusivity that lasts. It is so very rare. When people comment on what Maureen Dowd calls “the uncommon magic” of the Reagans’ marriage, Nancy has been known to say that “every union is sweet . . . because we don’t like to be apart”.
And people, on the whole, believe her.
She calls him Ronnie , he calls her Mommie. Always concerned that he do well, that he not be underestimated, Nancy has found the secure life and the success she needed so badly when she was young. “Passive and pleasant,” writes Lou Cannon, “Reagan has married a woman who is neither . . . but who realised the man she had married required a private and secure retreat”.
Nancy is worried about Reagan’s health. She doesn’t let him do too many interviews or travel a lot any more. Her former press secretary discovered, for instance, to her cost, never to ask Nancy to get Ronnie up at 6am for a television show. “I can drag her through the mud, but if it means Ronnie Reagan’s going to get a cold, forget it, baby.”
Among the latest drama is the story that Nancy is annoyed about the Smithsonian not having the funds to save her inaugural dress, the diamanté-encrusted, white silk sheath that is growing at a rate of half an inch per year from its own weight.
Doonesbury has adopted the story, and isn’t commenting on it as usual; but a trickle of donations from schoolchildren has begun to arrive at the American History Museum.
That’s the kind of thing you hear all the time about Nancy in Powerstown, DC, on the banks of the Potomac, where all the secretaries are ambitious and all the suits are by Brooks Brothers, and where Nancy stories are part of Washingtoniana, like influence-peddling, leaking to the press, and power lunches.
When the Reagans first moved to Washington, the stories were much nastier. Nancy brings out the vicious in a reporter, especially a female reporter.
Mind you, it seems to be reciprocal.
She has been known to ask young lady reporters to leave lifts rather than share them with her husband.
Then there was the $200,000 for the new tableware, because, well, you know, the china was so old, so cracked, and the $800,000 that she raised for the decorator’s bill.
Plus a lot of grief about the clothes she packed for the royal wedding, causing “Fancy Nancy” headlines in the British press accusing her of upstaging the royals.
Nancy was labelled a Marie Antoinette, despite the aide who desperately made the point that during a depression people need lots of glitz around to divert them from the gloom.
Other people – bored by the bleak honesty and naivety of the Carter days – felt a little fake Camelot might be charming.
Nancy, was often baffled at the reaction she provoked. When a postcard depicting Queen Nancy came out showing her in ermine and tiara, she cried and said “that’s silly. I’d never wear a crown. It messes up your hair so.”
And she has also even tried to spring loops of one-liners, like her husband, beginning with jokes about “the Nancy Reagan Home for Wayward China”.
Once she actually made a surprise appearance at the glittering Gridiron Dinner wearing pantaloons and yellow boots to sing, Second Hand Rose, complete with the lines, even my trench coat with the fur collar, Ronnie bought for 10 cents on the dollar”.
For an encore she dropped a china plate, which broke. This act probably sprang from Michael Deaver and his fellow aide Sheila Tate, widely credited with teaching her how to handle the press and reparcel a slicker image.
Nonetheless it worked well, if not for Lou Cannon.
“Nancy Reagan was victimised by the most unjustified and vicious attacks I’ve ever seen in all my 35 years covering the White House for the Washington Star,” says journalist Betty Beal, whose syndicated column now appears in the Washington Times. “No other first lady ever suffered this bad a press. Jackie K did exactly the same, and got praised for her taste . . . Lady Bird got her rich, powerful friends to donate so as she could pretty up the city, it was looking bad after the riots . . . and I don’t think anyone can do any better than get a thing donated.”
Yes, well, the donations were tax-deductible , of course, a small point but one that should not be overlooked.
So why do they pick on Nancy all the time, as Ronald Reagan keeps asking the press himself? “Because the press is liberal – that’ s why,” roars Betty, suddenly passionate. “Haven’t you read Pete Hannaford?” she asks referring to former aide Hannaford who analysed press coverage, in order to prove a liberal political anti-Reagan bias in the press in his book on Reaganomics and the media.
“I covered Mrs Reagan’s arrival in Washington when she was still using that place over on Jackson. She hadn’t anybody, she was still interviewing staff. She told me all the way back then that she wanted to do something about the drug problem, and that she thought it was the most pressing problem of all. She said ‘I just want to see what I can do’ about it’. But the press keep saying she invented the drugs issue to improve her image,” says Betty Beal defensively.
If it was deeply boring for Mrs Reagan and her rather lookalike press secretary Elaine Crispen to forever cope with questions about cups and saucers, and china generally, as well as about redecorating the Oval Office, they did find the ideal way to avoid those cups by adopting an anti-drugs crusade.
Nancy’s anti-drugs campaign caught public attention in a vivid way complete with photos of her talking to our very own Joan FitzGerald. Mrs Reagan travelled over 100,000 miles to 51 cities in 28 states and four foreign countries, and gave 110 press interviews for her campaign .
She hosted the White House conference with 17 other first ladies in April, 1985, and another 30 first ladies at the United Nations and none of the 47 first ladies missed the point. “After all, who could fault it?” comments Donny Radcliffe, of the campaign. “It generates jobs and foundations. Mrs Reagan is keen on getting the kids and parents’ groups going against drugs.”
But Donny also thinks Mrs Reagan is quite remote from the problem and doesn’t quite understand it – well-meaning through she may be. Being against drugs is pretty Mom and apple pie. When Jesse Jackson campaigns against them, people speculate about his motives. When Betty Ford fought alcoholism and pushed for education about breast cancer, she let herself in for criticism. Nobody imagines that Nancy speaks about drugs from deep experience – although some of the people Nancy knows well must have “done” coke just simply because the smart and fashionable do “do” coke here.
It’s their drug.
Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you’ve got too much money, after all.
But some of the old and prestigious families have judged Nancy rather severely, finding the insecurity behind the riches.
Their eyebrows have been glued to the chandeliers for instance by some of the Reagans’ rich Californian buddies from out of town, like Charlie Z Wick (formerly Zwick, and now head of the US Intelligence Agency); and Betsy Bloomingdale, she of the sordid and most unfortunate divorce suit.
Still the Reagans stick by them.
Even less acceptable to Old Washington would be Nancy’s own cronies, Gerry Zipkin, decorator Ted Grabe, and hairdressers. Robin Weir and Julius Bengtssen. “There is a certain kind of man who likes to hang around high-society women. They put up with it because these are ideal escorts, entertaining and amusing with no risk of gossip,” an anonymous habitue of the circle told me.
“Hairdressers . . . decorators . . . you know,” they added mysteriously. No danger.
Other people might criticise Nancy’s loyalty to Michael Deaver, the former aide now in disgrace over “Deavergate”, who was forced to surrender his pass to the White House messroom and all its tennis courts after facing a charge of peddling access to the Reagan ear on acid rain.
“The Reagans are always loyal to their friends,” explains Donny Radcliffe, and it is something they are admired for. Some have been through some pretty heavy scandals. When Donny asked Mrs Reagan if she had, in fact, after all, eventually “dropped” Deaver, in Tokyo, she said she wouldn’t like to comment, but it was very upsetting
There is something rather French about the way Nancy just doesn’t get on with women. It is common knowledge that most aides give her a wide berth, especially the female ones, and that she also does not like Caspar Weinberger.
Whether or not she got anybody fired is unclear. Lou Cannon thinks not. “It’s more a case of things not being pleasant if you don’t get along with her and suddenly a lot easier if you do,” Lou says. “She is still a very important influence upon the president, but mostly in matters pertaining to his health and well-being. She never lets him get overtaxed.”
Some critics used to think of her as a Messalina. Cannon can relay a hundred instances when the president didn’t go to Indiana or Iowa or see the Des Moines Enquirer because Nancy was sensitive to old press stories about his fatigue level.
The best-known gossip columnist in Washington – and she’s a nice woman, so I won’t use her name – says “the general impression is that of the vicious inside and it’s about right I think”.
Lou Cannon attributes this reputation to Nancy’s insecurity – stemming from her virtual abandonment as a little girl before her actress mother married the sternly kind Chicago neurosurgeon who became her stepfather, Loyal Davis.
Then Reagan had a reputation for being a Casanova between wives, and all this insecurity must have peaked with John Hinckley’s attempt upon her husband’s life.
There are 50 ways to lose your lover in Washington – especially if he happens to be president – but Nancy certainly doesn’t seem to have this problem. “Of course, I’m worried when Nancy just goes around the block,” Reagan said recently, when she set off for three days in Thailand and Malaysia to pursue her anti-drugs crusade. He simply would not be Reagan, or anything near it, without her.
Nancy says she and Reagan still talk to daughter Patti Davis on the phone despite the publishing of, Home Front, the runaway Davis bestseller about a politician’s rebel daughter.
Son and ex-ballet dancer Ronnie has turned into an okayish reviewer and reporter who can clown about his father quite disrespectfully.
Nancy is not any older. Visibly, she is quite unlike her 64 years (62, say the old film studio records). But she is an awful lot wiser, and says so too. She is also so thin that the gold belt presented to her by Zanariah of Malaysia nearly fell off her. Sipping Perrier, never eating, playing straight man to Reagan’s one-liners like the marionette upon his knee that really works him, she is, nonetheless, much more relaxd.
Not that she wouldn’t still cut you off at the knees if you meant any harm to Reagan or even if you just got in the way of smooth running.
She even recently told some Washington Times reporters about an anti-drugs press conference, at the end of which she stood to go and her wraparound skirt fell off.
At last, she has found an image and an issue she is very much comfortable with. It has given her something more to talk about. Her clothes are still fashion plate, but no longer her only topic for reporters.
And nobody thinks of her as Messalina anymore. “Matter of fact, she’s lying rather low of late,” noticed Diana McLellan of the Washington magazine.
The reason is simple, she doesn’t have to care now that Ronnie will not run for office again.
Instead, she needs to keep him well for those days back on the ranch in a couple of years’ time.
- This article was printed in The Irish Times on Friday, June 6th, 1986.