Beginning in 1951, Nancy Davis seeing the plight of a lonely man who didn’t know how lonely he really was determined to rescue him from a completely empty life. Refusing to be rebuffed by a certain amount of stupidity on his part she ignored his somewhat slow response. With patience and tenderness she gradually brought the light of understanding to his darkened, obtuse mind and he discovered the joy of loving someone with all his heart.”–Ronald Reagan, writing to his wife, Nancy, March 4, 1981
As we continue to consider the accomplishments of our 40th president–and this may go on for a while–so too should we note the contributions of Ronald Reagan’s wife.
Some may cite the refurbishment of the White House, a costly but important project financed with donations collected by Nancy Reagan. Others may point to the significant drop in drug use that coincided with Mrs. Reagan’s red-ribbon campaign, although I tend to think those infernal strips of red plastic fluttering from highway overpasses are of no great use to the republic
But Nancy Reagan’s greatest achievement, beyond the care and feeding of the president, was one that has gone unnoticed by all but a small segment of the electorate: America’s second wives. She, single-handedly, gave this tarnished group a sheen.
Call her the titular head of the Second Wives’ Club.
Second wives, see, have always teetered precariously from one oily image to another. Some are the despised Trophy Wives–pretty young things with gleaming teeth who accompany vacant men with considerably less hair than their mates.
If not a Trophy Wife, the second wife is dismissed as the Second Choice… the wife-by-default, who rescued some forlorn soul from an empty duplex littered with take-out cartons (think Tony Soprano, 2004) and is rewarded by forever living in the shadow of the Mother of His Children, the One True Love whose saintly presence always lurks even if the photos have been removed.
Nancy Reagan would have none of that, be none of them. She was a second wife, sure, but hardly anyone remembers that now. The one true love of Ronald Reagan’s life was his second wife. He said so himself, innumerable times, as in this 1955 letter to Nancy: “I love you so very much that I don’t even mind that life made me wait so long to find you. The waiting only made the finding sweeter.”
Ronald Reagan’s finest writing is contained in his letters to Nancy, which she saved in a shopping bag all these years and compiled into a book, I Love You, Ronnie, published in 2000. Read it with a tissue in hand.
“There are no words to describe the happiness you have brought to the Gov. It is no secret that he is the most married man in the world and would be totally lost and desolate without you.” –Letter to Nancy, on California Governor’s Office letterhead, signed “Your In Luv Guv”
By all accounts, including that of the future president, Ronald Reagan’s dark night of the soul occurred in the period after Jane Wyman left him. Enter Nancy, who couldn’t cook, but fixed that adoring gaze on Ronnie, and it was morning for Ronald Reagan again. The way to a man’s heart, it turns out, is not his stomach. It is, well, his heart. It’s a direct flight. And pretty Nancy Davis went straight there.
Their marriage was not perfect, both of them admitted, but it may have been as close to a perfect union as mortals will ever achieve. Nancy showed us that second wives, can, in fact, rise like the phoenix out of the ashes of a failed first marriage. Second doesn’t have to be second-best. Sometimes, the last can be first.
This is how President Reagan addressed the envelope on a birthday card he gave Nancy during their White House years: 1st Lady, 1st Sweetheart, 1st Wife.
The irony is so delicious.
“Just think we were married 28 minutes ago. Yes, I know the calendar says years but what does it know? Time goes by faster when you are happy and I’m the happiest man in the world.”–Anniversary letter, from Ronnie to Nancy, March 4, 1980
They’re insane, of course, but there are a few desperately unhappy people who insist that Nancy Reagan was a gold digger. But whatever negatives the Reagan haters spew, they cannot dispute this: Nancy Reagan loved her man.
This is a woman who, for her time, was practically aged–30!–when they married, but still said, “My life didn’t really begin until I met Ronnie.”
America, too, loved Ronnie, but we were slow to embrace his bride. We didn’t hate her as much as Hillary, but neither did we love her like Barbara Bush. “Rhymes with witch,” some whispered. We vaguely knew of unpleasantness, with the children and with her staff. She seemed a bit frosty–haughty and haute–and how much did that china cost? Even for the ’80s, Nancy Reagan sometimes seemed a little too Town & Country for our towns and country.
And so, for eight years, we loved him and tolerated her. She knew this, and it pained her, but she grew accustomed to it. All that really mattered to Mrs. Reagan was Mr. Reagan and his happiness, and that, she supplied in full. More than once, he wrote to Nancy that he missed her when she left the room. Sometimes, he wrote her letters when she was on the other side of a room.
When the president was shot, Mrs. Reagan immediately went to the hospital but was not allowed to go to his side. In her memoir, My Turn, she recalls begging Mike Deaver to get her in. “Mike,” she pleaded, “They don’t know how it is with us. He has to know I’m here.”
How it is with us…. In one letter to his wife, Reagan wrote admiringly of another couple, who “seem to have something of what we have.”
“Of course, it can’t really be as wonderful for them because she isn’t you, but still it helps to know there are those who might just possibly know a little about what it’s like…” he wrote in May of 1963.
The Reagans knew that theirs was no ordinary marriage, no mere coupling of the somewhat compatible. It’s tempting to wax romantic, to say that their union was what all marriages should be like. But in truth, we’re not all capable of giving love like that, or receiving it, or being so closely entwined. But, as the president said, it helps to know that there are others who know a little bit what it’s like.
This, perhaps, is the greatest Reagan legacy, the legacy of their love. And along with it comes welcome knowledge that there can be near-perfect love in an imperfect world, and sometimes, the second time’s the charm.
–Jennifer Nicholson Graham, an NRO contributor, is a writer in Virginia.