“The movies were custard compared to politics.” – Nancy Reagan
What an honest, graceful statement about the political world from one of the classiest First Ladies of the United States, Nancy Reagan. In honor of her life and legacy, today we look at some of the things we remember most fondly about Nancy Davis Reagan (July 6, 1921-March 6, 2016).
Her love for Ronnie. Nancy adored her husband, and it was evident in her words and her actions. She once said, “Our relationship is very special. We were very much in love and still are. Thank God we found each other. When I say my life began with Ronnie, well, it’s true. It did. Can’t imagine life without him.” The feeling was mutual: have you seen the love letters President Reagan sent to her? Charlton Heston even called their love, “the greatest love affair in the history of the American presidency.”
Her signature color. Very rarely did First Lady Reagan not wear a brightly colored red pantsuit, dress, or coat. She began the trend that came to be known as “Reagan Red” on inauguration day in 1981, wearing a beautifully tailored red coat and pillbox hat, a subtle nod to the last stylish lady in the White House, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. When asked about her love of the color red, Nancy said this, “I like red. It’s a picker-upper.” She used her influence and that shade of red to bring much-needed vibrance back to America and defined an era of style.
The Hollywood days. Ronald was a prominent, successful actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild prior to his political days, but Nancy had her turn in the spotlight, too. She studied drama and got her bachelor of arts degree from Smith College, landed a show on Broadway, then traveled to Hollywood and signed a seven-year contract with MGM Studios that cast her in several movies, including “Hellcats of the Navy,” that she and Ronald were cast in together. After marrying and starting a family, Nancy gave up her acting career to be a full-time mother and homemaker.
Her Role As First Lady. Ever the supportive wife, when Ronald became Governor of California and served two terms, she was admired for her involvement in programs like the Foster Grandparents Program and called a “model first lady” for her style and youthfulness. When Ronald wanted to run for President, she was reluctant at first, but then dove in and hosted the traditional “First Lady material” coffees and meetings to help the campaign. When Ronald was elected President, she was regarded as one of his most trusted advisers and the staff took her input seriously. She was known for being highly protective of her husband, especially after the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt on her husband, and having words a few times with the press, whom she claimed overscheduled him. She didn’t slow down even when she fought her own battle with breast cancer, being diagnosed in 1987 and undergoing a mastectomy. While Nancy’s elegance, high sense of fashion and taste in cuisine were refreshing to some after the more “folksy” and humble nature of the Carters, it brought concern and comments that she lived lavishly and didn’t care about true problems Americans were facing (though much of her wardrobe was donated and private donations given to upgrade the White House). To dispute this, Nancy was encouraged to begin a campaign of her own to diffuse the concerns and become a more serious political figure in the public eye. This led to the birth of…..
“Just Say No.” Nancy single-handedly began the anti-drug, drug awareness campaign that swept across America and other nations in the 1980’s and 1990’s. After visiting New York in 1980, she felt impressed to become involved in sharing the dangers of drugs and preventing students from turning toward drug abuse in the first place. She hosted the First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse in 1985 and traveled over 250,000 miles across the U.S. and other nations to speak and share the “Just Say No” campaign. Nancy recorded public service announcements, wrote guest articles, and appeared on over 20 talk shows, even co-hosting an episode of “Good Morning America” and doing a 2-hour documentary with PBS about drug abuse. Her influence led popular TV shows at the time, Diff’rent Strokes and Punky Brewster, to do episodes centered around the “Just Say No” campaign. The First Lady even participated in a rock music video in 1985, entitled, “Stop the Madness,” and inspired LaToya Jackson (Michael Jackson’s sister) to record a song named after the campaign. While it’s difficult to trace the effects of this campaign to a reduction in drug use, the usage of illegal and abusive drugs did fall significantly during the Reagan White House years.
Her Grace and Advocacy Amidst Ronald’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Death. When Ronald was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1994, she devoted all of her time to taking care of him, making very few political appearances to stay by his side. Her love remained steadfast and this is when she published her book, “I Love You, Ronnie,” a collection of some of the love letters between Nancy and the former President. When Ronald passed away in 2004, she became a strong advocate for stem cell research, a promising venue to find answers to better treat Alzheimer’s patients.
And so, the chapter of one of the most beautiful and prominent political love affairs America has ever seen has come to a close. May you rest in peace, Nancy. Thank you and President Reagan both for your profound impact on America!