Guest Editorial: Nancy Reagan had powerful role
Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, devoted her life to fiercely protecting her husband, whether that be as his most steadfast helpmate in the Oval Office or his most tireless caregiver when Alzheimer’s left him unable to even recognize her.
After Ronald Reagan’s death in 2004, the former first lady retained guardianship of the legacy of the beloved and important 40th president. She endeavored at every opportunity to remind Americans of his brand of hopeful and constructive conservatism.
A woman who knew the heights of power in the 1980s — and whose stylish sensibility brought back to the White House an air of glamour and confidence not seen since Jacqueline Kennedy’s day — saw her world crumble with the former president’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
The depth of her devotion during Reagan’s long illness seemed to shift the public’s perception of a woman who was more admired than loved during her years as first lady. Advocating even after his death on behalf of stem cell research, she became a voice for the millions of Americans grappling with Alzheimer’s grim reality.
Fewer remember that in 1987, Nancy Reagan spoke out on yet another health challenge. After undergoing a mastectomy, she openly discussed her operation to encourage women to have mammograms every year. She also worked hard on behalf of her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.
As first lady, she also was harshly criticized for what some considered her undue influence on the president. But she stood her ground as her husband’s protector, telling a 1987 audience, “I make no apologies for looking out for his personal and political welfare.”
By the end of the Reagan years, most Americans thought she’d done just fine.
The Reagan love story was described by the late Charlton Heston as “the greatest love affair in the history of the American presidency.” Even their detractors conceded the power of their mutual fidelity and regard.
They met in 1949, both Hollywood actors, and married in 1952.
Nancy Reagan told Vanity Fair in 1998: “When I say my life began with Ronnie, well, it’s true. It did. I can’t imagine life without him.” By then, however, Reagan had already begun to slip away. In that decade, the former first lady guarded him more fiercely than ever and lived what she termed “the long goodbye.”
At his state funeral, the frail widow of unshakable dignity bore up stoically through the ceremonies. She captured the nation’s heart when, in her final farewell before burial, she kissed her husband’s casket, clutched the American flag draped over it and, tears coming at last, said, “I love you.”
“I live in a permanent Christmas because God gave me you,” Ronald Reagan once wrote to his wife, whose importance in the drama of his life and his consequential presidency cannot be denied. Nancy Reagan poured her life out for her husband, and in so doing, for the nation.