White House

For Nancy Reagan, the White House was the role of a lifetime

Newlyweds Ronald and Nancy Reagan cut their wedding cake on March 4, 1952.
Newlyweds Ronald and Nancy Reagan cut their wedding cake on March 4, 1952. KRT

Nancy Reagan, a movie actress who assumed the role of a lifetime in the White House as one of the most influential and controversial first ladies in American history, died Sunday. She was 94.

“Mrs. Reagan will be buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, next to her husband, Ronald Wilson Reagan, who died on June 5, 2004,” a spokeswoman said in a statement that attributed the cause of death to congestive heart failure.

Nancy Reagan was a Hollywood starlet with 23 movie and television credits; a governor’s wife, a first lady who fiercely protected her husband’s best interests; and a staunch advocate for stem cell research that she hoped would spare others the pain her family endured as Alzheimer’s sapped the former president’s memory and vitality before his death in 2004.

She was a behind-the-scenes force in the White House, prim and proper in public but unafraid to speak her mind about the goings-on in the Reagan administration to the president or to key White House officials in private.

“I make no apologies for telling him (Reagan) what I thought,” Nancy Reagan wrote in her memoir, “My Turn.” “For eight years, I was sleeping with the president, and if that doesn’t give you special access, I don’t know what does!”

A bipartisan chorus of tributes from President Barack Obama and former White House occupants Sunday praised Reagan for her impact on policy, politics, and style at the White House.

Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, said Reagan “redefined the role” of first lady during her eight years in the White House.

“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,” the Obamas said.

“Her influence on the White House was complete and lasting,” former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush said in a statement. “When we moved into the White House, we benefited from her work to make those historic rooms beautiful.”

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Reagan “an extraordinary woman: a gracious First Lady, proud mother, and devoted wife to President Reagan - her Ronnie.”

“She leaves a remarkable legacy of good that includes her tireless advocacy for Alzheimer’s research and the Foster Grandparent Program,” the Clintons said in a statement.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush, wife of former President George H. W. Bush, said “Nancy Reagan was totally devoted to President Reagan, and we take comfort that they will be reunited once more.”

Former President Jimmy Carter said “She will always be admired for her strength of conviction and her lifelong devotion to her husband.”

Petite and almost always impeccably dressed and coiffed, Nancy Reagan was viewed by many historians as a so-called “traditional” first lady who focused more on the East Wing social aspects of the White House.

She had a flair for entertaining, hosting 34 state dinners in her husband’s first term. She was credited – and criticized – for returning an aura of style and sophistication to the White House at a time when the nation struggled through an economic recession.

“She felt the White House should exemplify the best,” said Mark Weinberg, who worked on Ronald Reagan’s campaigns, in the White House Press Office, and served as a family spokesman after the couple left Washington. “She went about fixing things; then there were these stories about ‘Queen Nancy.’ It bothered her dearly.”

But Nancy Reagan was anything but traditional. Though not as politically overt as former first ladies Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford or Hillary Clinton, former Reagan administration members said she exercised influence in some personnel and policy matters.

She served as Ronald Reagan’s protector-in-chief: always watching and listening to ensure that President Reagan’s staff was working to advocate his policies and vision, and not advancing their own careers and agendas.

She clashed with the late Donald Regan, Reagan’s gruff and powerful White House chief of staff, and called his appointment to that job one of the biggest mistakes of her husband’s presidency.

She described Reagan’s choice of Alexander Haig as secretary of state the biggest mistake of Reagan’s first term, calling him “power hungry” and “belligerent.” She shed no tears when Haig resigned in 1982.

“In this case I didn’t have to say anything to my husband; Ronnie just didn’t care for him, and we were both relieved when Haig finally left,” she wrote in her memoir.

Nancy Reagan’s safeguarding of her husband’s image and well-being intensified after the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt against the president, an event that prompted her to seek guidance on such things as the president’s schedule from astrologist Joan Quigley.

She later called the reliance on Quigley “a crutch” that turned into a White House embarrassment once it was revealed that she was seeking astrological advice. Still, she made no apologies for going to whatever lengths to protect the man she loved.

“And if that interferes with affairs of state, then so be it,” she said in a 1988 speech. “No first lady need make apologies for looking our for her husband’s personal welfare. . . . The first lady is, first of all, a wife.”

She became known for “The Gaze,” the unblinking, doe-eyed look of adoration toward her husband at public events. Critics dismissed the stare as stagecraft. She called it a sincere look of loving devotion.

She expected devotion and dedication from those who worked for the president. If she felt someone wasn’t devoted and dedicated, she would let her displeasure be known to them or work aggressively behind the scenes to have them removed – no matter how senior their position.

Several people inside and outside the administration believed that she orchestrated Regan’s forced resignation as White House chief of staff in 1987, because she felt that he didn’t do enough to defend the president in the wake of the Iran-contra scandal.

The administration was under fire because it illegally sold arms to the Iranians in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon and diverted the profits to fund contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Nancy Reagan, in her book, denied pushing Regan out the door. But she also acknowledged that she made the president fully aware of complaints from within the administration about Regan’s style and demeanor.

Regan contended in his 1988 tell-all book, “For the Record,” that Nancy Reagan helped push him out the door.

“I thought I was Chief of Staff to the President,” Regan said he told the president, “not to his wife.”

Nancy Reagan waded into foreign policy, siding with and aiding moderate voices within the administration that wanted Ronald Reagan to negotiate with the Soviet Union in their battle against hawkish elements who opposed the idea in the White House.

“She was always in favor of a more centrist approach to governing,” James Baker, Reagan’s White House chief of staff from 1981 to 1985, said on PBS’ documentary “Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.” “For one thing, she thought we should deal with the Soviet Union, not just refuse to talk to them.”

She told PBS that “Ronnie thought, as I did, that there had to be a breakthrough.”

“I wanted to be sure that he could really accomplish this,” she said. “Well, I didn’t just sit back, you know. I was talking to people.”

Her most visible political activity during her tenure in the White House was getting involved in the war on drugs through her “Just Say No” campaign. Her efforts were met with mixed reviews.

But her work morphed into the Just Say No Foundation, which at its apex in the 1990s had over 1 million members in 12 countries, Ivey Cohen, a former president of the foundation, told The Atlantic.

Anne Frances “Nancy” Robbins Davis was born July 6, 1921, in the borough of Queens, N.Y. Her father, Kenneth Seymour Robbins, was a car salesman and her mother, Edith P. Luckett, a stage and radio actress.

The Robbins home wasn’t a happy one – he wasn’t at the hospital for Nancy’s birth _ and the couple divorced in February 1928. Edith Robbins resumed her theatrical career and sent young Nancy to live with her aunt, Virginia, and her husband, Audley Galbraith, in Bethesda, Md.

Edith Robbins married Loyal Davis, a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon, in May 1929. To outsiders, the newlyweds seemed an odd couple: she was a humorous, bawdy, free-spirited actress and a Democrat, and he was a reserved, serious-minded physician and a staunch Republican.

The marriage brought a change of location, social station and a new name for Nancy. She took her stepfather’s name after he legally adopted her in 1935. She regarded Dr. Davis, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University who died in 1987, as her true father.

Edith Davis stopped working in the theater after she remarried, but some of the best of Broadway _ Spencer Tracy, Lillian Gish and Katharine Hepburn – remained friends and often stayed with the Davis family when they visited Chicago.

That exposure contributed to Nancy Davis’ interest in acting. She earned a bachelors degree in drama from Massachusetts’ Smith College in 1943 and waded into an acting career with the help of her mother’s friends.

She first settled in New York and followed her mother’s footsteps on the stage. She had a minor role in the 1946 musical “Lute Song,” which starred Yul Brynner and Mary Martin.

In 1949, she had a successful Hollywood screen test and signed a seven-year contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. She appeared in 11 feature films including “The Doctor and the Girl” in 1949, “Night Into Morning” in 1951 and “Hellcats of the Navy” in 1957, the only movie in which she starred with her husband.

Nancy Davis first met Ronald Reagan eight years earlier, ironically brought together by the turbulent politics of the times.

Reagan, newly divorced from actress Jane Wyman, was president of the Screen Actors Guild. Davis enlisted his help in trying to get her name removed from a blacklist of possible Hollywood communist sympathizers.

Reagan called Davis and told her that he looked into her situation and was willing to discuss it over dinner. Their first date was at LaRue’s, a popular eatery on Sunset Strip.

“He was so completely different from any actor I had ever known,” she said in an interview for the PBS documentary. “He didn’t talk about his last picture or his next picture, you know the old story of, ‘Well, now let’s talk about you, what did you think of my last picture?’ He had many other interests and the first night we went out, I mean, we talked about so many other things but we never talked about acting, and I liked that.”

Reagan told her that night that it was a different Nancy Davis from a different studio who was on the blacklist. To avoid future confusion, he suggested that Davis change her name, something she was reluctant to do in deference to her adoption by Dr. Davis.

The Reagans married on March 4, 1952, at the Little Brown Church in Los Angeles. After “Hellcats,” Nancy Reagan quit her career to become a wife and mother. The Reagans’ first child, Patricia Ann, was born seven months after their marriage. Their son, Ronald Prescott Reagan, was born in 1958.

As the 1950s rolled into the 1960s, Ronald Reagan transitioned from aging movie actor to television personality. He hosted “General Electric Theater,” a weekly drama series. He also served as pitchman for the corporation, touring the country giving speeches to company employees and civic groups.

The speaking engagements helped Reagan, a Democrat-turned-Republican, find his political voice. He ran for governor of California in 1966 and defeated incumbent Democrat Edmund Brown by a million votes.

The victory sent the Reagans to Sacramento, where Nancy Reagan quickly stepped into controversy by refusing to live in the governor’s mansion. She called it a “fire trap” – an opinion shared by the local fire department – and the family instead moved into a two-story, 12-bedroom Tudor house in east Sacramento that they leased at their own expense.

The move rubbed many Californians the wrong way. They accused the state’s first lady of being a snob. It’s a description that followed her to the White House after her husband was elected president in 1980.

Shortly after taking residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Nancy Reagan went about renovating and fixing the historical building for the first time since the Kennedys lived there.

She came under heavy media fire for ordering a new set of china during economic hard times for the country, even though the china was purchased and donated by a private foundation.

“Everything I did or said, whether as first lady, wife, or mother, was instantly open to criticism – to interpretation, speculation, second-guessing,” Nancy Reagan wrote. “My clothes. My friends. My taste in decorating. My relationship with our children. The way I looked at my husband! My entire life was suddenly fair game for comment by the press and the public alike.”

Reagan’s fashion sense landed her in hot water when it was learned that she borrowed expensive gowns made by American designers and jewelry, sometimes without returning them or reporting them on the president’s annual disclosure forms.

“I was also criticized in 1981 for wearing nice outfits during a recession,” she recalled in “My Turn. “But if I had suddenly started dressing differently, how would that have helped the economy? On the contrary: I was told that because so many women look to the first lady as a fashion leader, I provided a great boost for fashion designers.”

She converted the criticism into comic fodder at Washington’s annual Gridiron dinner, a skit-laden gathering of media and politicos, in 1982 when she donned yellow rain boots, white pantaloons with blue butterfly prints, a blue blouse with white polka dots, and fake pearls and sang a parody of the song “Second-hand Rose.”

Still, much of the public and several presidential scholars had unflattering opinions of Nancy Reagan. A survey of scholars who study first ladies conducted in the 1990s ranked her next to last, just above Mary Todd Lincoln, who held seances in the White House and was accused of eccentric spending habits in her day.

But time, and tragedy, softened the public’s view of Reagan. Her declining health _ she had a cancerous left breast removed in 1987 and suffered a broken hip in 2008 _ and Ronald Reagan’s 1994 announcement that he had Alzheimer’s, a debilitating brain disease, triggered an outpouring of sympathy towards the former first lady.

Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004, of pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer’s. He was 93. A poll six years later by Angus Reid Public Opinion showed Nancy Reagan tied with Hillary Clinton as the nation’s favorite first lady since 1974.

“What the public saw was their political lens disappear, especially as the president began his long goodbye because of the Alzheimer’s,” said George Washington University history professor Allida Black said. “People saw how devoted she was as his illness became public.”

Enormously popular in the Republican Party, she didn’t hesitate to disagree with party members or positions.

She advocated federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, something that anti-abortion activists and conservative lawmakers opposed.

She wrote President George W. Bush in 2001 as he weighed a ban of federal money for the research. She recounted her experience as an Alzheimer’s spouse and argued that the research was critical to someday finding a cure for the disease.

“I am determined to do what I can to save others from this pain and anguish,” she wrote to Bush. “I’m writing, therefore, to ask your help in supporting what appears to be the most promising path to a cure – stem cell research.”

In August 2001, Bush restricted federal spending to only 21 stem cell lines that had been produced before his decision.

In 1994, Nancy Reagan helped scuttle a bid by former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North to become a Republican U.S. senator from Virginia. North was a former National Security Council aide and a key figure in the Iran-contra affair who claimed that the president knew of the arms-for-hostages deal. The president denied knowing about it.

Speaking at New York’s 92nd Street Y that year, Nancy Reagan said, “Ollie North has a great deal of trouble separating fact from fantasy.” She added that North “lied to my husband and lied about my husband.”

When asked about her comments, The New York Times reported North as saying “My mom told me a long time ago, ‘Never get in a fight with a lady.’”

Anita Kumar, Lesley Clark ,David Lightman and Maria Recio contributed.

Email: wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @williamgdouglas.