Over the past few days, illuminating articles have appeared about Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday, March 6, 2016.
Before addressing these, however, Mitt Romney’s Facebook tribute to her would have been better received by his fellow Republicans had he not given a speech in Utah a few days before to banjax Donald Trump’s candidacy. And what about the secret meeting in South Carolina which followed at the weekend whilst Nancy Reagan was dying? The airwaves in Florida during that time were bombarded with various Republican PAC-financed negative advertising, the tone of which astonished even the irrepressible Trump himself. Many of Mitt’s Facebook commenters were angry that he violated Ronald Reagan’s first principle of conservatism: don’t criticise other conservatives, even if you disagree with them. I’ve read that Mitt has lost thousands of Facebook ‘friends’ with his hypocrisy.
Two of the articles cited below — one from Real Clear Politics and the other from the New York Times — were written by Lou Cannon, a journalist that Nancy held at arm’s length at first. He soon became a close confidant of hers. They knew each other for 50 years. Their longstanding friendship shows that Nancy was willing to change her mind and adapt to circumstances — wisely.
Whatever one thinks of Nancy Reagan, one cannot fault her as First Lady or as the devoted wife to one of America’s most popular presidents in living memory.
First Lady of California
Ronald Wilson Reagan began his first term as Governor in January 1967.
This involved moving his family from Pacific Palisades in southern California to the state capital of Sacramento. The Governor’s Mansion was in a dire state. In fact, it was a firetrap. Nancy and two of the Reagan children spent much of their time there initially.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Nancy was suspicious of the press, which was not surprising, as she knew how awful reporters could be, having been part of the Hollywood set.
Years before, in 1949, as Nancy Davis, she was at risk of losing her career, having been named as one of the actors who signed a brief to have the convictions of two screenwriters deemed to be Communist overturned. Fortunately, her friend, director Mervyn LeRoy, was able to establish that another actress of the same name signed the brief. As dark as those days must have been for her at the time, that was how she met Ronald Reagan, who was president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time. LeRoy arranged a meeting between the two because Nancy wanted to clear her name in person. It was love at first sight. They began dating in earnest in 1950 and got married on March 4, 1952, at the Little Brown Church in Studio City. Actor William Holden and his wife Ardis were the couple’s witnesses.
Years later in Sacramento, Nancy was astonished at the fulsome press coverage her husband’s adversaries received.
Lou Cannon remembers that she also loathed the hypocrisy of politicians:
She wondered how they could say terrible things about her husband on the floor of the legislature during the day and then socialize with them at night as if nothing had happened.
Personally, I wonder about that, too, when I read that the Bushes and the Clintons are really close. One can imagine that Jeb and Hillary vying in this year’s election would have been a desirable outcome for both families.
Cannon writes that Nancy decided to adapt to her new circumstances by not only memorising the names of every California legislator but also learning something about them. She turned a negative situation into a positive one.
By the time Ronald Reagan began his second term as governor, contributors had financed a more comfortable house for him and his family. The contributors owned the house and leased it to him.
At a reception there for freshman legislators in 1973, Nancy introduced herself to Democrat Lou Papan and his wife. Their son was seriously ill. Nancy told them that her (adoptive) father — Loyal Davis — was a doctor. She spent some time talking with them about their son. Whilst there was nothing she could do about the Papans’ son’s illness, by knowing something about them, she was able to comfort them during a difficult time. Cannon remembers:
They later lost their son but never forgot how empathetic Mrs. Reagan had been.
During those years, Nancy learned to cope with the press and socialise with the wives of men who had insulted her husband in the course of politics.
Negative press began early and went national. In 1968, author Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne wrote a hit piece for the Saturday Evening Post, now defunct but a popular magazine of its time. My grandparents subscribed to it. Cannon recalls:
The article described Mrs. Reagan’s famous smile as a study in frozen insecurity.
However, Cannon points out that Nancy received positive press, too. A few months after the Saturday Evening Post article, the Los Angeles Times published an article, ‘Nancy Reagan: A Model First Lady’. Other media coverage praised her welcoming home recently released prisoners of war from Vietnam and her Foster Grandparents Program for mentally disabled children.
Ronald Reagan’s first attempt at presidential nomination
Watergate exploded in 1974. Ronald Reagan did not seek re-election. Jerry ‘Governor Moonbeam’ Brown, son of Reagan’s predecessor, won the gubernatorial election that year and assumed office in January 1975.
It was during this time, back home in Pacific Palisades, that Nancy began to play a greater part in influencing her husband’s political career.
In May 1974, Reagan was already planning to run as a candidate in the 1976 presidential election. The Reagans held a meeting of supporters. Among them was John P Sears, a well-established Washington lawyer who had worked on Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1960. He told the Reagans that Nixon would stand down, which he did on August 9.
Nancy never forgot Sears’s prediction, so when it came time for her husband to begin putting his bid together for the 1976 election, she urged him to hire Sears to direct the campaign. Reagan lost the Republican nomination narrowly to Gerald Ford, who then lost the election to the Democrat, Jimmy Carter.
It makes me wonder whether we will see a rerun this year of close delegate totals. Reagan was very popular in 1976 and Ford was thought to be a bit of a wimp. However, Reagan was seen to be very conservative at the time, a view which changed four years later after the Carter debacle — the Iran hostage crisis.
By 1980, Sears was back on the scene. However, Nancy had second thoughts. Deeming him ‘disruptive’, according to Cannon, she recommended that he be fired and replaced by William J Casey, who later headed the CIA in the Reagan administration. Yet, during the campaign, Nancy didn’t think Casey was the right man, either. Cannon tells us (emphases mine):
Mrs. Reagan became critical of Mr. Casey and urged her husband to bring in Mr. Spencer, who had run Mr. Reagan’s first campaign for governor. Mr. Spencer was persona non grata in the Reagan camp because he had managed Mr. Ford’s campaign in 1976. But Mr. Reagan followed his wife’s advice. Mr. Spencer joined the campaign and ran it smoothly.
She might have been correct in that matter, but Cannon points out that Nancy’s advice was not always on target:
For instance, she opposed Mr. Spencer’s proposal that her husband debate President Carter. Mr. Reagan decided to debate and did so well that he surged ahead in the polls and won convincingly a week later.
Assassination attempt 1981
Ronald Reagan had barely begun his presidency — incidentally, Iran released the American hostages on Inauguration Day — when John Hinckley Jr attempted to assassinate him on March 30, 1981.
Dan Friedman’s article for The Atlantic explains how this potentially tragic event altered Nancy’s views on guns:
The former actress and wife of GOP standard-bearer Ronald Reagan sometimes kept a pistol in her nightstand when her husband was out of town. But after a personal brush with gun violence, she began to change her mind.
Minutes after John Hinckley Jr. fired a handgun six times at her husband, a Secret Service agent incorrectly told Nancy Reagan that all the shots had missed the president. When she found out that her husband was in critical condition—a bullet fragment had entered his left lung, barely missing his heart—she was shocked.
“He was so white. I have never seen anybody so white,” she later recalled. “And he had that thing over his face to help him breathe, and there was blood.”
She never forgot that horrible day. In a 1994 interview, she said:
There is nothing that can describe your husband being shot and the emotions that you go through. It’s something that never leaves you.
Although Reagan maintained that guns were not the problem, people were, Nancy continued to persuade him that gun control was the way forward. In 1991, by which time George H W Bush was in office, Reagan gave a speech emphasising the responsibility people had in bearing firearms. He came out in support of the 1993 Brady Bill under the Clinton administration. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer says today that the former president’s advocacy greatly helped the bill to be voted into law.
I have been thinking a lot recently about this assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life. Mitt made his anti-Trump address last week at the Hinckley Institute in Utah. The name started me free associating, even though there might not be any sort of family relationship there.
When it happened — and even today — it appeared to be a random act. That said, John Hinckley Jr’s Wikipedia Talk page has recurring references to the Bush family. George H W Bush was Reagan’s VP. He was also one of Reagan’s opponents in the 1980 GOP primary race.
One prays that any connection between Hinckley Jr’s crimes and Hinckley family relationships with the Bushes are entirely coincidental. Rense.com has an excerpt of a longer article by Tom Flocco, which states:
Curiously, only one time was it announced on the news about the connections between the Bush and Hinckley families: An almost bewildered John Chancellor on NBC Nightly News reported “the bizarre coincidence” that Vice President Bush’s son, Neil, and Scott Hinckley had dinner plans for March 31, 1981 — now cancelled, of course.
That was to talk about oil pricing issues, by the way. Scott Hinckley is John Jr’s brother.
Incidentally, in 2016, Neil Bush has been working on Rafael ‘Ted’ Cruz’s finance team.
Let us pray such a thing never happens again. I remember the shock we all felt, as we also remembered the Kennedy assassination in November 1963.
First Lady of the United States
By the time Ronald Reagan was sworn into office, Nancy Reagan understood how the political world worked.
She crossed the aisle to make friends among the Democrats.
Those who were alive at the time will recall the political sparring between Speaker of the House Thomas P ‘Tip’ O’Neill and President Reagan. Yet, as they were friends after hours, so too was Nancy with Millie O’Neill.
Nancy took her duties as First Lady seriously. Whilst she had many critics and negative stories often appeared in the press, she carried herself with grace, poise and elegance. Never once did she look anything less than well dressed. Whilst she was demanding with her husband’s staff, she adhered to White House protocol and was a perfect hostess to fellow American and foreign dignitaries alike.
The most negative thing I remember about her in the White House was redecorating part of it and buying new china during a time of recession. Lou Cannon explains that these improvements were privately funded, which many of us (myself included) did not know:
After one look at the White House living quarters, Mrs. Reagan decided to redo them. She then raised $822,000 from private contributors to accomplish this. Another contributor put up more than $200,000 to buy a set of presidential china, enough for 220 place settings; it was the first new set in the White House since the Johnson administration.
In 1987, during her husband’s second term in office, Nancy had to have a mastectomy of her left breast. She gave interviews about the experience and urged women to have regular mammograms.
Devoted wife until the end
Nancy and Ronald Reagan had a very close, loyal relationship with each other.
In 1994, the former president was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He and Nancy composed a letter to make his condition public to the American people.
Nancy then organised ongoing lunches and get-togethers with friends so that they could all reminisce together. Cannon says Nancy described the next decade as a ‘long goodbye’.
She also became a staunch advocate for research into cures for Alzheimer’s.
She was at her husband’s side throughout his ten-year illness. She loved him deeply.
Lou Cannon describes June 11, 2004, the day of the former president’s funeral:
At Mr. Reagan’s funeral, at the National Cathedral in Washington, she remained in tight control of her emotions. Then she flew west with the coffin for a burial service at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., where Mrs. Reagan will also be buried. At the conclusion of the ceremony, at sunset, soldiers and sailors handed Mrs. Reagan a folded American flag. She held it close to her heart, put it down on the coffin, and at last began to cry.
Before her burial on March 10, people travelled far and wide to line the route to pay their final respects to the wife of America’s 40th president.
Nancy and Ronald Reagan served their country proudly and responsibly.
They also served — and loved — each other in marriage, through adversity, sickness and health.
May we, in our own circumstances, do likewise.