Nancy Reagan: Untold Stories From A Speechwriter & Historian

A photograph I took of Nancy Reagan in mid-November 1980, as she exited the White House after a tour of the private rooms with Rosalynn Carter. (carlanthonyonline.com)

A photograph I took of Nancy Reagan in mid-November 1980, as she exited the White House after a tour of the private rooms with Rosalynn Carter. (carlanthonyonline.com)

In light of the death of Nancy Reagan this morning and in response to media inquiries, Carl Anthony Online will be publishing a series of articles over the next few days giving focus to some of the untold, unknown or rarely considered aspects to her nuanced public role and the complexities of the great number of personal responsibilities she assumed, both elements shaping her life.

During her post-election visit to Washington, Nancy Reagan entering the F Street Club for a pre-Inaugural dinner with Washington's social and political elite.

During her post-election visit to Washington, Nancy Reagan entering the F Street Club for a dinner with Washington’s social and political elite.

Many of these stories are the result of not just unused material from the research I conducted in the writing of my two-volume book First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives & Their Power, 1789-1990, but also my personal times with her.

My first encounter with Nancy Reagan was brief but memorable, taking place in November of 1980, as I flowed along with a pack of reporters who converged on her and her husband. Ronald Reagan had only a week or so earlier defeated Jimmy Carter in his bid for re-election. The Reagans spoke to the press in the small driveway just outside the entrance to the West Wing, on the north side of the executive mansion.

Despite my presumptuousness as a student at nearby George Washington University, enrolled for my first fall semester there at the time who’d just decided to expand a history major into a double-major including journalism, I didn’t get a chance to shout out a question to her, but I had worked myself up enough to try and catch her attention.

Mrs. Reagan spoke to the press...

Mrs. Reagan spoke to the press…

As they walked down the crescent driveway to then exit the White House grounds, stride across Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Square and then the small street that bordered its west side, and into the presidential guest house, reporters were falling all over themselves. It was a lot of mayhem in those days of naive security. I followed the Reagans closely, every so often trying to get close enough to ask Mrs. Reagan a question, in between the dozens of photographs I was snapping of her and her husband.

They had just emerged from a visit to what would be in two months, their new home. As Reagan conferred with the man he had just beaten in a bitter election, incumbent President Jimmy Carter, Mrs. Reagan had been given an overview tour of the private family rooms by First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

The moment Nancy Reagan called me out - to ask me to ask her my question, as I was snapping her picture.

The moment Nancy Reagan called me out – to ask me to ask her my question, as I was snapping her picture.

And then, suddenly, right through the lens of my camera, Nancy Reagan looked me directly in the eye. “You keep trying to ask me something!?”

It was startling to think that with all that was going on, she had made a mental note of the many individuals facing her down in those moments. Yes, I pulled down my camera and started asking fast, “What are the issues facing American society today that you hope to take on as First Lady?” Not very original, perhaps, but the best that might be expected from an earnest journalism student.

“First, let’s get through the holidays – and our house in California. Oh boy, and the Inauguration, moving and settling in…Then, we’ll see,” she replied. She was smiling but she didn’t seem happy. Not because my question was impertinent but because, so it seemed, she had reminded herself of all the upheaval she would have to endure over the next ten weeks.  She seemed worried, not at all like the blithe spirit I believe she was hoping to convey of herself.

Her response may not have amounted to news but it certainly offered what I considered to be a perspective into her character: worrying was worth it if it helped to get the job done, but it might not always prove to be as celebratory as it looked. Add to this the fact that I kept snapping my camera in her face. And now, it seems, that brief encounter was a lot to ask of her.

Still, I managed to capture that moment she asked me to ask her my question.

President and Mrs. Reagan at a 1981 Inaugural Ball

President and Mrs. Reagan at a 1981 Inaugural Ball.

Then, as now, a proud and registered political Independent, I managed to get myself hired as a writer for the 1981 Inaugural Book Committee, writing copy for some of the programs of the many events, and given the chance to author my first chapter of a book, about inaugural history. I was able to attend all of the events, covering them as a reporter for inclusion in the book.

Going to college so close to the White House offered one a very palpable if tangential sense of the presidency. I was among a cluster of the very first students who dashed over to George Washington University Hospital when word got out that President Reagan had been assassinated. He had already been taken in under the drive-thru pavilion of the emergency room, but there his limousine stood – with a bullet hole in the window.

One night, as I heard the First Lady was about to arrive at the hospital to visit him there, I arrived in time to see her carrying in a ubiquitous glass jar of jellybeans.

My photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan on the North Portico to welcome the Australian Prime Minister for a state dinner they were hosting in his honor.

My photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan on the North Portico to welcome the Australian Prime Minister for a state dinner they were hosting in his honor.

I was soon after able to first find gainful part-time employment at the White House in a division of the public correspondence unit while still a student. It also allowed me to continue covering Nancy Reagan at different events, be it her welcoming with the President, the Australian Prime Minister for a state dinner, the Easter Egg Roll, numerous rehearsals of state dinner entertainment (the most memorable being a performance by the legendary George Shearing).

 

With Mrs. Reagan on Marine One.

With Mrs. Reagan on Marine One.

I had also begun to write freelance pieces for the Washington Post, giving historical perspective on current presidential stories, and sending out requests to the living First Ladies for interviews to be used in the book I intended to write.

One year for Father’s Day I did a piece on how several First Ladies had been influenced by their fathers, and included among these stories and a photo of Nancy Reagan and her beloved stepfather. The morning after the story appeared, I got a call from the First Lady’s Chief of Staff. Mrs. Reagan had read and liked my article. He had my request for an interview. Would I consider, instead of a formal interview with her, the chance to ask questions here and there as I traveled with her while working as a speechwriter?

Who wouldn’t?

I’m not sure whether the speeches I wrote were of note, but certainly the events where she spoke them were of historical significance.

Nancy Reagan speaking at a Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort AP Hill in Virginia, July 30, 1985.

Nancy Reagan speaking at a Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort AP Hill in Virginia, July 30, 1985.

The first, in July of 1985, marked a turning point in her evolving arc over eight years as First Lady, from the caricature of style to the figure of substance. It was to the massive, annual Boy Scout Jamboree at Camp Fort A.P. Hill in northern Virginia. We took Marine One the helicopter there. What was unusual about the event is that the President had been scheduled to make the speech, and the First Lady determined to maintain his public commitments by assuming some of them, as he lay in Walter Reed Hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

At the time I didn’t give much thought to the fact that the presidential helicopter we took did not depart from the White House lawn but from Andrews Air Force Base in nearby Maryland. In contrast, the Chief of Staff Don Regan was just then demanding that a presidential helicopter be put at his disposal, summoning it up when he decided he was too important to go to Walter Reed Hospital by limousine.

Not even the First Lady felt she had the right to assume such prerogatives.

It marked the beginning of the schism between her and the Chief of Staff that would end with her initially covert effort to oust him from his post. She succeeded.

Nancy Reagan attends United Nations First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse in New York City, October 21, 1985.

Nancy Reagan attends United Nations First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse in New York City, October 21, 1985.

Another speech was the one she delivered in October of that year, given in the United Nations General Assembly to an unprecedented gathering. It was unprecedented for two reasons.

The First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse was the first time that the global drug abuse epidemic, growing since the late 1960s, had ever been given a forum for discussion by one unified meeting of influential international figures.

The second reason it was unprecedented was the fact that it gathered together for the first time in history the spouses of world leaders.

In accepting Mrs. Reagan’s invitation, many of these women were making their first appearances as public figures, having previously taken on no public responsibilities  or often not even being acknowledged in their own countries. By urging them to attend this event, she unwittingly helped stimulate the first public awareness in many developing and communist nations of not just the wives of their leaders but the fact that women could play important roles in addressing problems among their people.

Lost in translation? Despite their differences, the US and USSR First Ladies encouraged the friendship of their husbands.

Lost in translation? Despite their differences, the US and USSR First Ladies encouraged the friendship of their husbands.

A third speech I wrote was more ceremonial in nature, but composed for the First Lady’s first meeting with her Soviet counterpart, Raisa Gorbachev. The event was a November 1985 joint appearance at the groundbreaking of the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, Switzerland. No matter how sharply the two women may have felt about one another, or how didactically Mrs. G offered examples of Marxist supremacy, Mrs. R endured, never losing sight of her intention for presidents Reagan and Gorbachev to at least form a working dialogue. Under her guided efforts, it became a friendship that led to dramatic nuclear arsenal reductions and, in part, the collapse of Soviet communism.

Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary CLinton, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Barbara Bush at tje April 1994 dinner for the National Arboretum.

Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary CLinton, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Barbara Bush at tje April 1994 dinner for the National Arboretum.

In the years that followed. there would be other times I had the chance to speak with Mrs. Reagan, like a Washington gathering held in her honor, with members of her former staff and her local friends, at the time her memoirs were published, or the famous reunion of six First Ladies for a national arboretum effort.

Most memorable for me was a lunch held at the Reagan Library in 1991, when she addressed a group then raising money for the Smithsonian exhibit on First Ladies. I was seated beside her and for the first time since I’d sat across from her on the helicopter in 1985, felt I had a chance to really connect with her as a person. We talked about her mother’s dogged loyalty to the Democratic Party and her own memory of being a teenager and hearing Eleanor Roosevelt address the 1940 Democratic Convention.

“You know too much!” she cracked when I raised the topic of Chicago’s mayor at the time, Ed Kelley and the work her mother did for him. She apparently had enjoyed the afternoon too. By the time I arrived back at the Los Angeles home of my friend, where I was then staying, he excitedly met me with the phone in his hand, letting me hear the voicemail message Mrs. Reagan had left for me on his number,  expressing her enjoyment of reviewing so many moments of her earlier life in Chicago and “mother.”

Mrs. Reagan during our interview.

Mrs. Reagan during our interview.

Five years after she left the White House, I finally did get to sit down and conduct a formal and lengthy interview with Nancy Reagan, in the presence of some five hundred guests and television cameras. In October of 1994, she came back to Washington, D.C.  to participate in one of my weekly sessions of a twelve-week symposium, “The President’s Spouse,” sponsored by George Washington University. Unlike many of her interviews during the White House year, she was utterly at ease, relaxed, curious and engaging.

And a bit of the actress was still evident after I asked, “Do you think that Ronald Reagan could have become president – without Nancy Reagan?”

Mrs. Reagan answering my questions during the symposium.

Mrs. Reagan answering my questions during the symposium.

The question momentarily caught her by surprise, but she went with it, her eye on the audience as she took a moment to consider her response. “Oh. Oh my….well….,” she offered with dry understatement and great timing, “I think I may have helped a little. Maybe.”

It is an hour and twenty minutes long. After my introduction and a clip showing perhaps her most remarkable speech, a firm address on not just global but American responsibility for the drug problem, the interview begins at minute 24:00. Here is the link to my interview with Nancy Reagan on her role as the president’s spouse.

Rosalyn Carter, Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton gathered for the Betty Ford Center's anniversary.

Rosalyn Carter, Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton gathered for the Betty Ford Center’s anniversary.

After that, the crowd was her own. The rest of the interview went swimmingly. Only today did I actually watch our interview in its entirety. I was struck by how witty she was, how honest she was. This was not a political wife putting the best spin on everything. There seems one especially poignant moment, when she reviewed the upheaval of events she faced in late 1987. What now makes her ease during our interview all the more remarkable is that she was just then waiting for the results of medical testing on the former president. It would conclude that he had entered the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s Disease.

When I left Washington and moved to Los Angeles in 2001, we were in touch again. When I had new books published, I would send her a copy. She always responded with a handwritten note.

I next saw and spoke at length with Mrs. Reagan in Palm Springs, California at the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Betty Ford Center, in 2003. She had gathered there with Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton. (“It’s your crowd Carl,” she cracked).

Mrs,. Ford's funeral; the author at upper-right.

Mrs. Ford’s funeral; the author at upper-right.

The last time I had a chance to interact with Mrs. Reagan, it was only for a brief moment of greeting. It was a solemn occasion, the funeral of one of her own, Betty Ford, in July of 2011. I’d been honored with a seat three rows behind them all, another chance to observe and chronicle.

One humorous observation involved Mrs. Reagan being cut off from her “crowd.”  Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Clinton were already seated. It would seem likely that the arrangement was for Mrs. Reagan to sit beside them, but former President George W. Bush, who escorted Mrs. Reagan in, took that place. Before the service started, Mrs. Reagan was bobbing her head back and forth trying to get Hillary’s attention. Bush finally leaned back.

Later, Mrs. Clinton told me that the former First Lady had asked about her mother, Dorothy Rodham, then quite advanced in age. “I told her, and she commiserated about the challenges of aging.”

Nothing better eliminates the worthless futility of partisan bickering than a shared experience. And no group of people better illustrate the higher nuances of this than the sorority of living American First Ladies.

There are many aspects to Nancy Reagan and the historical significance of the various roles she did assume that seem to have fallen off the radar of the media. In the next few days, I hope to have enough time to do justice to publishing them. In the meanwhile, here are several from the archives of the website that may be of interest:

A Movie Star First Lady: Nancy Reagan’s Hollywood Acting Career

Inside Reagan’s 1950s General Electric “Home of the Future”

The Reagans Host Old Hollywood & New “Royalty” at the White House

Reagan’s 1985 Big Chill Sunday Inauguration

Dynasty to Fantasy Island: An Eighties TV Star Galaxy at Ronald Reagan’s White House

Nancy Reagan & Gary Coleman…and Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck & Brooke Shields

How Hollywood Helped Reagan Change Washington: With Previously Unpublished Photos


Categories: First Ladies

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8 replies »

  1. Thank you so much for this; I was so looking forward to your homage.. did not disappoint. Sweet and blissful dreams be hers.

  2. Very insightful. Thanks, I’m grateful to get such a firsthand account of her.

  3. Carl I wonder if you might have a photo of Mrs. Reagan walking off of Marine One with me saluting her at the Fort A.P. Hill Boy Scout Jamboree from July 85. I was the Marine One crew chief aboard the helicopter that day. I assume you were on board with us as well. If you do have a photo or know where I can get a copy I would be delighted. I live in Simi Valley and visit the library often with find memories of serving at HMX during that time.
    Thanks Carl,
    Mark rt_rider@pacbell.net

    • Dear Mark – I greatly appreciate you making the effort to write and apologize for the delayed response. Unfortunately, I do not have such an image. However, the very good news is that the thousands and thousands of rolls of film that are always snapped by White House photographers are preserved by each individual presidential library. While individual prints may not have all been made, all of the negatives are preserved and this can be done. Also, researching the frames of these images are more easily perused by the contact sheets. I would urge you to contact the Audio-Visual Department of the Reagan Presidential Library. Since you are nearby, you can make an appointment to do this research yourself – and with the specific date you should be able to determine relatively quickly if they have the image you are searching for.

  4. Well, she certainly had your number with that line…“It’s your crowd Carl”. Great insights as usual Carl. Looking forward to more.

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