Washington mythology has long fostered the illusion that Nancy Reagan’s reputation was transformed by a March 1982 song-and-dance number.
The new first lady had been ridiculed in the midst of a recession for spending $200,000 on White House china and wearing borrowed gowns from designers like Adolfo. So White House image-makers decided that public self-mockery was the way to rehabilitate her reputation.
She performed with brio a comic version of “Second Hand Rose” at the Gridiron Dinner and — voila — was transformed into a beloved public figure on the spot. Or so the story goes.
In truth, what turned the perception of Nancy Reagan from Ice Queen to exemplary first lady was something far less gimmicky and contrived.
Gradually, it dawned on the doubters — partisan Democrats and apolitical cynics alike — that what had been viewed as artifice was genuine. That her devotion to her husband and her protectiveness were not a pose or a campaign tactic, but an expression of who she was.
In an earlier decade, Nancy Regan’s dependence on an astrologer to shape the president’s schedule would have seemed perhaps the most important part of her years in the White House. But over time, such starry notions mattered far less than, say, the first lady’s insistence that the president face up to the full implications of the Iran-contra scandal.
Nothing in her public life, however, matched her bravery and honesty in confronting the cruel disease of Alzheimer’s that — day by day — took more of her beloved “Ronnie” away. What Betty Ford did to eliminate any reticence in acknowledging breast cancer, Nancy Reagan did for Alzheimer’s.
Not to be lost in the many tributes to Nancy Reagan was her sense of fun. My wife Meryl Gordon interviewed the former first lady in 2007 for her book (Mrs. Astor Regrets) about the New York philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor.
Mrs. Reagan described her close friend frequently coming to the White House for parties and state dinners. Then, the next morning, the former first lady said, “We talked about who looked pretty and who didn’t and who did what they shouldn’t have.” I treasure the image of these two women of a certain again gossiping like teen-agers the morning after a state dinner.
Every death of a public figure in her nineties can be said to represent the passing of an era. But Nancy Reagan embodied a profoundly 20th century sense of public life.
It was a time when dignity mattered and public figures behaved in a way that allowed school children to cling to comforting illusions about their leaders.
Outsiders probably sensed that the end was near for Mrs. Reagan when she did not appear at the September 2015 Republican debate at the Reagan Library. In hindsight, it was fitting that she was spared the first-hand sight of what contemporary presidential politics have descended to.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is covering his 10th presidential race. A fellow at the Brennan Center at NYU, he is lecturer in political science at Yale and is the author of the forthcoming in June ‘Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.’ Follow him on Twitter at @MrWalterShapiro.
See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call’s new video site.
NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.