Nancy Reagan's Sway May Be Unappreciated

Karen Tumulty's book lays out her role in shaping Ronald Reagan's legacy
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 16, 2021 2:01 PM CDT
No First Lady Had More Influence Than Nancy Reagan
In this Jan. 20, 1981, file photo, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger administers the oath of office to Ronald Reagan, as Nancy Reagan holds the Bible.   (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty, File)

They called Ronald Reagan the Teflon President because nothing stuck to him. By contrast, they should have called Nancy Reagan the Velcro First Lady, writes Karen Tumulty in the Wall Street Journal. In an excerpt of her book The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, Tumulty ticks off a handful to the nicknames assigned to Nancy: The Iron Butterfly, the Evita of Bel-Air, Mommie Dearest, the Ice Queen, and Attila the Hen. She was, it turns out, "an easy proxy for political opponents who were too intimidated by Ronald Reagan’s popularity to attack him directly." But those who underestimate her role in shaping Ronald Reagan the man and Ronald Reagan the president are making a mistake, writes Tumulty. He met Nancy as a "broken man" on the cusp of middle age, coming off a failed marriage with his Hollywood career in decline.

Ronald Reagan's growing interest in politics changed all that, of course, but Tumulty makes the case that Nancy made it possible with her skillful early handling of donors and supporters. She simply had a "better political antenna," James A. Baker III, who served as Reagan's chief of staff and Treasury chief, tells Tumulty. Later, when her husband was in the White House, Nancy rarely ventured into the West Wing, but her influence was nonetheless immense. "If she was displeased about something, they all knew it, and those who were not in her good graces tended not to last for long," writes Tumulty. And it was Nancy who pushed her husband toward the defining achievement of his presidency—ending the Cold War. "Nancy Reagan exercised an influence unlike any first lady before or since," Tumulty writes. "Hers was the power of intimacy." Read the full essay. (More Nancy Reagan stories.)

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