Nancy Reagan, the widow of former President Ronald Reagan, died on Sunday 6th March at the age of 94 of congestive heart failure, in her home in Los Angeles. She will be buried next to her husband at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
Everyone has heard of Ronald Reagan, the Wild West Hollywood movie star who was Governor of California and became the 40th President of USA in 1981. His relationship with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher is infamous, particularly in this country. Reagan was certainly a character, whether you agreed with his politics or not. But who was his wife, Nancy Reagan? What kind of First Lady was she?
Nancy Reagan (neé Davis) was born as Anne Frances Robbins in New York City in July 1921 to a car salesman and an actor. Her parents divorced when she was young and she was raised by her Aunt and Uncle in Maryland, whilst her mother pursued her acting career. She took her maiden name, Davis, from her mothers’ second husband who adopted her. She went to acting school and performed on Broadway in the 1940s. In the 1950s she went to Hollywood where she met Ronald Reagan, the man who was to be her future husband. They got married in 1952 and she was Reagan’s second wife. They had two children Patricia (Patti) in October 1952 and Ronald (Ron) in May 1958.
From 1967 until 1975, Reagan was the Governor of California, making Nancy the First Lady of California. She moved the family out of Sacramento into a suburb, an action that led to allegations of snobbery. However, she saw the decision as one that benefited her family and this was above all her main priority. At this point she began to work on the Foster Grandparents Programme in California, something she would continue as the First Lady of the US. This was created by President Johnson in 1965 as part of the initiatives related to the Economic Opportunity Act. The programme consisted of four services that would employ 17,600 elderly Americans on low incomes in order to improve the lives of 140,000 other Americans; mainly deprived, neglected or disabled children or housebound, sick, bedridden and isolated elderly. These foster ‘grandparents’ would provide emotional support to victims of abuse through tutoring, mentoring or caring for them. She personally visited veterans, the elderly and the disabled and helped to popularise the scheme in the US and Australia. Evidently, she was labelled as a model First Lady.
Nancy Reagan was concerned about her husband’s decision to run for the Republican Presidential Nomination in 1976. She was worried for his health and career but ultimately knew that he would be successful. Reagan did not win the nomination, but in 1980 he succeeded in winning the nomination. She took a prominent role in the campaign and her influence on her husband became notable as it was clear that her presence made Reagan more comfortable. Michael K Deaver, a longtime close friend of the Reagans stated; “Without Nancy, there would have been no Governor Reagan, no President Reagan.”
Reagan won the 1980 presidential election and was inaugurated in January 1981, thus making Nancy the First Lady of the United States of America. She got to work on creating a more suitable home in the White House, using private donations. There was some controversy over this because the donations were tax-deductible so some of the funds did come from the tax paying public. At this point, she became famous for her fashion choices and there were some issues with her not always declaring and promoting gifts from fashion designers. Generally though, her publicity of the American fashion industry was good for individual businesses and the industry as a whole. Her love for fashion was something she had in common with Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the leader of the Soviet Union, who Nancy happened to have a close relation with.
During her time as First Lady, Nancy continued to work and pursue her ambitions. Her most infamous contribution to American society was her ‘Just Say No’ programme that fought against drug abuse among the youth. She travelled across the USA and other nations visiting drug abuse prevention programmes and centres. During her efforts to promote the programme, she spoke at the United Nations, something that made her the first First Lady to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. Numerous ‘Just Say No’ clubs remain in operation around the country in order to educate the current American youth about the negative effects of drugs, emphasizing therefore how significant her contribution was to American society.
In a CBS poll on leaving office in January 1989, 56% of Americans had a favourable opinion of Nancy Reagan, 18% were unfavourable and 26% had no opinion either way. This was higher than Mrs Rosalynn Carter and Mrs Hilary Clinton when they left office.
Ronald Reagan died in 2004 at the age of 94 following a 10 year battle with Alzheimers’ Disease. Nancy planned the funeral and led the nation in mourning for the former President. This transformed and elevated her national image and she was praised for supporting her husband through such a dehabilitating illness. As a result of her experience with Alzheimers’ Disease, she championed the cause of embryonic stem cell research as a possible way to cure the disease and urged President Bush to support this.
Nancy Reagan was not perfect; she did made some controversial private decisions. However it seems that these decisions primarily affected her negatively, and not her husband. In the end, she managed to charm her way out of the negative press spotlight. She was absolutely dedicated to her family, especially to her husband. In a 1988 interview Nancy said: “Thank God we found each other. I can’t imagine my life without him.” She was a trusted adviser to her husband throughout his political career; there is video evidence of her prompting him during a press interview. But Nancy should also be remembered as more than just her husband’s ‘rock’. She made her own significant contributions to American society and for this she deserves to be remembered.