Ronald and Nancy: Love, in and out of the limelight
If Ronald Reagan had wanted to be a shoe salesman, it was said, Nancy Reagan would have made sure he was the best shoe salesman in the world. It’s just that he wanted to be president — so she was going to do her utmost to make sure Ronnie got the chance.
In their 50-plus-year marriage, they never stopped dating. It was a lifelong continuation of their first meeting. For they met on a blind date, when he was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and her name had mistakenly showed up on a list of suspected communists in Hollywood.
Since her death on Sunday at age 94, many have commented they never saw any two people more in love than Nancy and Ronald Reagan. I thought the same. Their love and devotion constituted one of the great marriages of the American presidency. They always slept together in the same bed — and would have scoffed had someone suggested otherwise. They wrote love letters to each other. They served as a great balm to each other, becoming better people as each drew strength in the other’s presence.
She saw herself as his strongest advocate. Yet the serious advice she gave was invariably in private. One key reason that would prompt her to act was if she felt her husband was being ill-served by those around him. She felt his sunny optimism might keep him from grasping dangers around him.
It was pragmatic matters of personnel, rather than policy, that most often drew her attention. Nancy Reagan had originally suggested, for example, that her husband hire the Republican strategist John Sears, who had worked with President Richard M. Nixon. But when she decided that Sears was ineffective as Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign manager, she began trying, at first tentatively, to fire him.
Later, as she developed more confidence in her judgment, Nancy Reagan played a major role in the ouster of Donald Regan from his job as White House chief of staff. As the Iran-Contra scandal played out during Reagan’s second term, she saw Regan’s actions as hurting rather than helping her husband.
She looked out for her husband’s interests – personal as well as professional. Particularly after the 1981 assassination attempt, Nancy Reagan was vigilant when it came to her husband’s health. And her efforts were proactive, as well as reactive.
For she knew that her husband’s optimistic outlook might cause him to overlook physical dangers as well as professional. She worried even as Reagan enjoyed working at their California ranch well into his 70s. He would clear brush and often wanted, for example, to climb up onto the roof to fix it, or just clear it off. No matter how strongly she would caution him against it.
One afternoon, she needed to go into Santa Barbara, California, the nearest town, for some groceries. She warned Ronnie to stay safe while she was gone. She even told their ranch hand, Dennis Le Blanc, who was an old family friend, to make sure to keep Ronnie off the roof. Yet, she returned several hours later to find him, shirtless, up on the roof repairing tiles.
After Ronnie was stricken by Alzheimer’s, she tried to protect him here as well. She raised millions for Alzheimer’s research and fought to institute more stem-cell studies.
Perhaps her greatest role was in being her husband’s protector and guide, as he descended into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. There was no glory in this, no media attention, no cheers of the crowd. Just a loving and tender wife caring for her loving and tender husband as he slipped inexorably away, away from the limelight.
Meanwhile, she was taking steps to make sure he was not forgotten, particularly with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which has served to host many Republican presidential debates. She co-operated on books about him and encouraged the lectures and talks that celebrated Ronnie’s achievements.
At the last, though, they simply wanted to be alone, together.
And now they are.
Nancy Reagan, RIP.