She was loved. She was reviled. Christopher MacNeil brings balance to the conversation —who was Nancy Reagan?
As first lady of the United States for most of the 1980’s, Nancy Reagan was a polarizing public figure: there was little if any middle ground between those who embraced her as a loyal wife of class and elegance, and those in the other camp who reviled her for wielding her influence as a weapon and as a homophobic wife of a homophobic president who withheld government funding and intervention with the birth of a truly frightening public health crisis.
When Mrs. Reagan died Sunday morning at her California home at age 94 of congestive heart failure, a predictable wave of tributes saturated the Web. Not surprisingly, Ronald Regan’s Republican successors to the Oval Office were lofty in their comments about Mrs. Reagan’s passing while LGBT and civil rights advocates tempered their praise – if any – about the failure of her husband’s administration to act quickly as AIDS evolved into a very real lethal threat.
President Obama, in his comments, wrote: “Our former First Lady redefined the role in her time here. Later, in her long goodbye with President Reagan, she became a voice on behalf of millions of families going through the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer’s, and took on a new role, as advocate, on behalf of treatments that hold the potential and the promise to improve and save lives.”
From Obama’s predecessor, George Bush: “Her influence on the White House was complete and lasting. During her time as first lady and since, she raised awareness about drug abuse and breast cancer. When we moved into the White House, we benefitted from her work to make those historic rooms beautiful.”
And from Barbara Bush, wife of Ronald Reagan’s vice president, nothing about Mrs. Reagan’s role as first lady, and only that she “was totally devoted to President Reagan, and we take comfort that they will be reunited once more.”
Not all the initial comments on Mrs. Reagan’s passing were glowing. Some bordered on the vicious like one from Matthew Risch, an actor on HBO’s gay-themed series “Looking.” He tweeted, “Good Riddance to the woman who waged a war against drugs & not for drugs that were so desperately needed.”
The passing of public figures usually comes with tributes that idealize them as larger than life. And if the public figure was a lightning rod for criticism as Mrs. Reagan certainly was as first lady, the pendulum can swing the other way. But an honest appraisal of Mrs. Reagan’s contribution to the role of first lady cannot be complete without historic comparison.
Was Mrs. Reagan really a first lady who “redefined the role …in her time” as President Obama observed and did she actually restore beauty to those “historic rooms” in the White House as Bush 43 noted? And was she really a first lady who was witness to the birth of the AIDS outbreak but sat idly by as her husband remained mum?
Probably not, on each score.
The academic judgment on which first lady expanded the role beyond a ceremonial figure goes overwhelmingly to Eleanor Roosevelt. And few will probably challenge Jacqueline Kennedy’s contribution of refurbishing a dilapidated White House and gracing it with an unprecedented class and elegance, the trademark of the Kennedy Camelot.
As for Mrs. Reagan’s role – or lack of it – in influencing her husband’s official response to the emerging AIDS epidemic, an accurate assessment is probably lost to history. At least two LGBT-oriented news services resurrected earlier stories that Mrs. Reagan “turned her back” on one of her and her husband’s closest friends, actor Rock Hudson. According to those news accounts, Hudson, in the final stages of AIDS and nine weeks before he died, dispatched the White House for help in getting him transferred from a hospital in Paris to another one for treatment. His cry for help was apparently given to Mrs. Reagan but was not acknowledged.
Yet, in an HBO documentary in 2011 observing the late president’s centennial birth, the Reagans’ son, Ron, conceded his father’s administration “was clearly” slow to respond to AIDS. He also claimed that he and his mother talked to the president privately hoping to evoke official action with the argument that “something is out there” that was going to literally kill many of the president’s personal friends, interpreted to be a reference to Reagan’s friendships from his days as an actor.
About the only matter on which Nancy Reagan’s admirers and critics will agree is that she won’t be remembered as an actress. As a player in minor and supporting roles but never as a leading lady, Nancy Davis met her future husband when she solicited his help when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. As Nancy Reagan, the future first lady of California and, later, the nation shrugged off her acting career as being of secondary interest to her pursuit of a “successful, happy marriage.”
She found it in Ronald Reagan, himself an actor associated with supporting and minor roles and the divorced husband of a first wife who carried significantly more power and influence in the acting industry as an Oscar-winning Best Actress – Jane Wyman.
Mrs. Reagan was undeniably and without challenge completely devoted and protective of her husband. The New York Times, in its initial obituary for Mrs. Reagan, wrote: “In public, she gazed at him adoringly and portrayed herself as a contented wife who had willingly given up a Hollywood acting career of her own to devote herself to her husband’s career. He was all I had ever wanted in a man, and more, she wrote in ‘My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan,’ published in 1989.”
But some onlookers saw Mrs. Reagan’s devotion to her husband unsettling and bordered on obsession. She was held up for ridicule in photographs of her gazing at her husband with a sometimes surreal adoration, and Mrs. Reagan endured public humiliation as first lady when it was disclosed by an ex-Cabinet official that she regularly consulted with an astrologer to arrange her husband’s schedule as president.
She also wielded immense power and influence and used both again advisers and members of her husband’s inner circle. The president’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, disclosed Mrs. Reagan’s astrological consultations in a 1988 book. Regan asserted that Mrs. Reagan’s attempts to schedule the president’s public activities based on astrology created havoc with White House schedulers.
Mrs. Reagan and many commentators categorized Regan’s claim as revenge against the first lady and her role in his ouster as the president’s chief of staff after the Iran-Contra scandal. But Mrs. Reagan had never held back on her low opinion of Regan. According to the New York Times, Mrs. Reagan said Regan “liked the sound of chief but not of staff.
The public image of Mrs. Reagan as a polarizing and divisive figure followed her after her eight-year tenure at first lady. But the tide of public compassion and sympathy began to turn her way in 1994 when her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. True to her role as devoted and protective wife, she withdrew greatly from public appearances to be her husband’s main caregiver that would be a decade-long role. Her public appearances became mostly at functions that advocated research and treatment of Alzheimer’s and, in those appearances, Mrs. Reagan made the public a witness to her own private long good-bye to the former president.
After his death in 2004, Mrs. Reagan all but withdrew from public view except for obligatory state appearances at funerals for ex-president Gerald Ford and, later, his wife, former first lady Betty Ford. But she spoke occasionally through her daughter, Patti, who said her mother supported last year’s Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage is a federal right.
In the end, Nancy Reagan will likely be remembered for her roles as first lady and caregiver to a dying husband, the former with criticism as an overly protective and sometimes vengeful wife and the latter as a spouse enduring the cruel disintegration of a beloved husband at the hands of a vicious disease.
Photo: Flickr/Levan Ramishvill