Remembering Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan in 2001 (Mario Tama/AFP/Getty)
A historian’s first look at her life

Nancy Reagan died this weekend. She had been with us through so much. She lived through so much. She suffered so much. I talked with historian Alvin Felzenberg — who has written about presidents and is working on a book on National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. — about her life and her legacy. — KJL


Kathryn Jean Lopez: How will you most remember Nancy Reagan? 

Alvin Felzenberg: I will remember her as a wonderful woman of elegance, charm, grace, and intelligence. She had a keen and clever wit. Bill Buckley picked up on this immediately.


Lopez: What did she mean to Ronald Reagan?

Felzenberg: He himself said that he could not imagine life without her. She said that her life began when she met him. Buckley said that their relationship was the “real thing.” What else is there to know?


Lopez: What did she mean to his administration? 

Felzenberg: She was one of our greatest and least-appreciated first ladies. She was Ronald Reagan’s enabler, protector, enforcer, and best friend. She also fought behind the scenes to enact his programs.

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Lopez: How was she important to American history?

Felzenberg: She preserved and extended her husband’s life on multiple occasions. After his near-death experience two months into his presidency, she took personal charge of many aspects of his life, including his schedule. They said she “meddled.” But she had learned not to depend on others to do this job after what happened.

On the policy side, she made sure that Reagan received information from sources from outside so that he could obtain many perspectives on issues. His papers, hers, and those of others show this clearly. The woman lived on the telephone and was one of the world’s best networkers. She did not need Facebook.


Lopez: What is most under-appreciated about her? 

Felzenberg: Her interest in policy and her willingness to stretch to the four corners of the earth to find Reagan the person who could answer his questions and enhance his insight. Both of them had an intellectual curiosity that was extraordinary. 


Lopez: When discussing women and politics and shattering glass ceilings, do we under-appreciate the power of women such as Nancy Reagan? 

Felzenberg: Pat Buckley once said that her full-time job was to be “Mrs. William F. Buckley Jr. and the mother of Christopher Buckley.” Nancy Reagan was of the same generation. Advancing Ronnie was her life’s work.

That said, she did not see her role as first lady as that of an adoring bystander or an ornament. Behind the scenes she was a full partner in much, if not all, of what Ronald Reagan did. Don Regan never got that.


Lopez: What of the dust-ups with Donald Regan and others? The astrology tabloid stuff? Surely it will be talked about in coming days. What to make of all that?

Felzenberg: Given the problems we have seen in the present-day Secret Service, I might advise the Obamas to retain an astrologer.

Donald Regan was a brilliant corporate executive who was in the wrong job as chief of staff. He thought he could shut Nancy out of the president’s business. This was never going to happen, especially after the shooting.

She trusted and respected James Baker. I think she trusted him enough to allow him a wide berth. She valued people she knew were interested in the welfare of Reagan the president and Reagan the man, not in a Reagan who might be a vehicle to promote their careers. When she found those people, she backed them up. Regan’s days were numbered when he was photographed between Reagan and Gorbachev, appearing to tell her beloved Ronnie what to do, how to act, etc.


SLIDESHOW: Remembering Nancy Reagan

Lopez: Do you have a good sense of what she believed about God and death and anything to come?

Felzenberg: She believed in God, that I know. She believed she would see her beloved Ronnie again. She longed for that day.


Lopez: Was it awkward for her to be the wife of the first divorced president?

Felzenberg: The Reagans were both mature when they married. I do not imagine divorce was an issue. This was Hollywood, after all.

I suspect it was difficult having a husband with two families, essentially. I know she forged a good relationship with Maureen and with Michael.


Lopez: Any sense of her relationship with Margaret Thatcher? John Paul II?

Felzenberg: She had a very close relationship with Thatcher. They talked about politics, family, children, and, would you believe, where in Washington Maggie could find thick towels to bring back to Downing Street. 

Obviously, Ronald Reagan had a strong bond with Pope John Paul II. And Nancy was present during time they spent together.


Lopez: People covered the stem-cell issue when she voiced her opinion, but what is a more important story to tell about those later years? 

Felzenberg: This I do not really know. I know that until the final stages of the disease, Alzheimer patients have their lucid moments. I suspect she waited for those. She once said that the worst thing about the disease is that it robs couples of shared memories. The person is beside you, but you cannot reminisce. She lobbied Bush 43 on this issue and did not criticize him when he did not follow her advice. She praised Obama for the position he took on the issue. These are the facts. We respect who she was and what she believed.

Know one important thing about Nancy Reagan: She was the stepdaughter of one of the most accomplished surgeons in the land and the sister of another. To her, stem-cell research would spare other families the afflictions she came to know well. She and her husband were rather open about their cancer operations as well and made a point of urging people to be regularly screened. She backed up the surgeon general in his efforts to alert the public to the AIDS crisis. There were multiple controversies about this at the time. She was personally acquainted with Rock Hudson and his death had a profound effect on her. Again, she approached these things as a doctor’s daughter. Like all of us on our best days, she was trying her best. This is something else she gets little credit for. Ditto the “Just say no” campaign. This was no PR stunt. She came from Hollywood, after all. She had friends who lost children to overdoses.


Lopez: What were her interactions with WFB like?

Felzenberg: They were very close. They wrote each other flirtatious notes they shared with their spouses. They invented a secret life for themselves about running off to Casa Blanca and asked the president and Pat for stylistic suggestions. Nancy spoke to Pat Buckley by telephone weekly, sometimes more frequently. She and Bill were close until his death. He was a continual source of both fun and comfort to her throughout many trials she endured over the years. One thing that was hard for her in the final years was the thinning out of her friends. Again, the absence of shared memories.


Lopez: What would you hope might lead some of the tributes of the next few days? 

Felzenberg: The tremendous source of support and strength she gave her husband.


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