Nancy Reagan ‘played the bad guy’ so the president could shine
Ronald Reagan was credited with the ability to read a play instantly and take control of strategic moments with a disarming anecdote. Through his two terms as governor of California and two terms as President of the United States, Reagan generated speculation about the level of political sense he hid beneath an exterior of Hollywood charm.
In Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty’s great new book, “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan,” an answer to this speculation emerges: The president’s political acumen was not hidden under his affability – he sat right behind him, emblazoned a thin smile and a bright red Adolfo costume.
Even Reagan’s first chief of staff, James Baker III, reportedly said, “She had a tremendous political antennae, much better than hers, in my opinion.”
Tumulty seems aware of the uphill battle involved in drafting a thorough and historically responsible biographical reassessment of a controversial figure like the First Lady, who during her lifetime was ridiculed as a fragile control freak and a clueless activist. for “Just Say No”, his program to discourage drug use. This mockery was codified in Kitty Kelley’s 1991 best-selling book, “Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography.” In this latest book, Tumulty created the best possible replica: she wrote a masterpiece.
Tumulty is well aware of the shortcomings of her subject. “Her purchase of over $ 200,000 worth of White House porcelain created a headache for her husband amid a recession in which the Reagan administration was cutting back on poverty reduction programs,” writes Tumulty . “She ‘borrowed’ designer clothes and didn’t return them.”
A subtly different version of administration emerges from Tumulty’s book. At one point, Reagan told his future biographer Edmund Morris that 1949 was the lowest year of his life: he was sadly divorced, he had an injured leg and was hanging out on crutches, and his film career was in dying. “And then came Nancy Davis,” he said to Morris, “and saved my soul.”
Nancy was born Anne Frances Robbins in 1921 and became Nancy Davis when she was adopted by her mother’s second husband. After a stint as an actress in Hollywood, she married Ronald Reagan in 1952 and became famous for him. “She had only one concern,” writes Tumulty, “the well-being and success of Ronald Reagan.”
Early in Reagan’s political life, his agent aptly described him as “allergic to interpersonal conflict”, warning that in any political career “you’re going to have to fire a lot of people.” It became clear that Reagan, with his easy going nature, would be a disaster at this sort of thing; that would be his wife’s job. “She was the one who was going to be the bad guy.”
It was certainly his reputation during Reagan’s tenure. As Tumulty notes, although the First Lady rarely set foot in the West Wing, her presence was palpable there.
In “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan”, this palpable presence is still there. But Tumulty, who has interviewed a legion of sources, presents an image of the first lady as surprisingly earthy, daring, and always, stealthily, kind.
“Madam. Reagan wants it so” is the unrecognized theme of the book. Tumulty’s organization’s claim is that the first lady was a central player in one of the most important American presidencies of the 20th century, and this case has never been so clearly presented.
All future biographies of her should start with this one; it deserves a place on the same shelf with “Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams” by Margery M. Heffron and the three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Wiesen Cook.