The list of influential modern first ladies always includes Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, but not usually Nancy Reagan. That’s a mistake.
Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, had a big influence on her husband, President Ronald Reagan, both in shaping White House operations in his first term and encouraging his breakthrough relations with the Soviet Union in his second.
For more than a half century, the Reagans’ love story was so intense that at times it burned at the expense of family, friends and politics.
That could be a political liability. Reagan’s lavish spending habits and social friends became political baggage. Her fixation on astrology after the 1981 assassination attempt on her husband was a distraction for the White House.
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Before Ronald Reagan reached the White House, including during his two terms as governor of California, his wife was seen more as a stylish, protective spouse than a substantive mover and shaker.
That changed after Reagan became president in 1980. The Republican right wing was determined to shape the new administration’s agenda by putting Edwin Meese, a hard-line conservative, in charge of the White House staff. Mrs. Reagan, working with her old confidant Michael Deaver, instead persuaded her husband to tap James Baker as chief of staff — even though Baker had been the campaign manager of her husband’s primary rival (and then running mate), George H.W. Bush. Meese instead became counselor to the president.
The Baker-Deaver duo proved remarkably effective at pushing a conservative agenda in a politically pragmatic way. Reagan won re-election four years later in a landslide.
When Baker and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan switched jobs at the start of the second term, the new White House chief of staff ran afoul of the first lady. That was Regan’s mistake. After the Iran-contra scandal, involving arms-selling to Iran in exchange for release of American hostages, she helped engineer his ouster in 1987.
She also encouraged her husband to seize an opening for a better relationship with the Soviet Union. She forged a close alliance with Secretary of State George Shultz — they had scores of telephone conversations — at the expense of the more conservative national security adviser, William Clark, a longtime Reagan ally. Clark, too, was discarded, and Reagan signed a sweeping arms-control pact with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1991, about three years after Reagan left office, the Soviet Union collapsed.
It wasn’t that President Reagan was easy to manipulate. But these were controversial issues, and there was conflicting advice. His wife, more than anyone, knew how to appeal to him and had his confidence.
After her White House years she became a vocal advocate for research on Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicted her husband late in his life. She also supported some gun-control measures, reflecting the continuing influence on her thinking of the 1981 assassination attempt.
She remained a Republican, occasionally appearing at events at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. But she told friends and acquaintances in recent years she was dismayed at the right-wing tilt of her party, which she believed didn’t reflect the legacy of her “Ronnie.”