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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
I’m not sure whether the speeches I wrote were of note, but certainly the events where she spoke them were of historical significance.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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).
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:
Categories: First Ladies