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For Nancy Reagan, White House Offered ‘Role of a Lifetime’

February 4, 2011 at 6:48 PM EST
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Judy Woodruff previews "Role of a Lifetime," a new PBS documentary on the political life of former first lady Nancy Reagan.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the political instincts of the other half of the Reagan team, his wife, Nancy.

In a new PBS documentary about her life, I examine the former first lady’s role as her husband’s confidant and behind-the-scenes strategist, a role that began long before he was elected president.

In 1976, in an audacious move, Reagan challenges sitting President Gerald Ford for the Republican party nomination.

MAN: Nothing quite like this has ever happened before in the history of American politics.

RON REAGAN, son of Ronald Reagan: You had a convention that was almost split down the middle. It was not certain that Gerald Ford was going to win, and so feelings were running high. And Betty Ford and her family were sitting across the hall. And there started to be this sort of dueling applause kind of thing between my mother and Betty Ford.

MAN: So the battle of the wives has been joined again for the second night in a row, Nancy Reagan at one end of Kemper Arena, Mrs. Ford at the other end.

MAN: Will the delegates please take your seats?

ALLIDA BLACK, historian: It was the battle for the soul of the Republican party. But it was also a battle for who the first lady was going to represent. Would it be a forward-looking woman who would speak her own positions publicly? Or was it going to be a woman that you never saw what she wanted, other than she wanted this for her husband?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ford wins the nomination, but by only a slim margin. Reagan emerges with a stronger national profile. When he runs for president four years later, the public still sees Nancy as a traditional housewife. But away from the cameras, she’s deeply involved in the hiring and firing of campaign staff.

JAMES BENZE, biographer: She knew her husband was very hesitant to fire people. He didn’t like conflict. He was intensely loyal to people around him, but sometimes some of those people weren’t serving him well.

NANCY REAGAN, first lady: I don’t know whether it’s just blocking things out or he just doesn’t see things. He knew the overall picture, but he didn’t know of all my meetings in the back halls and things like that.

STU SPENCER, political consultant: She was the personnel director. She was the human resources department. She made decisions on who was going to be around him. From the campaign to the governor’s office to the White House, that was her role.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On election night in 1980, Reagan trounces then President Jimmy Carter, sweeping 44 states.

REPORTER: It was a very early call for Ronald Reagan as the next President of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The results come in so quickly, the Reagans are caught off guard.

REPORTER: It is a Reagan landslide.

NANCY REAGAN: I had the television turned up, and I heard, it looks like Ronald Reagan has won. Well, I jumped out of the tub, grabbed a towel, knocked on the shower door, told Ronnie to get out. And he got out and he grabbed a towel.

And there we are, dripping wet, listening to somebody say, Ronald Reagan is the next president of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The documentary, “Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” airs on most PBS stations starting this weekend.