Remembering Nancy Reagan’s Crucial Role as Husband’s Centennial Nears

BY Judy Woodruff  February 2, 2011 at 5:07 PM EDT

As we approach the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth on Feb. 6, 1911, there will be some re-thinking of his presidency and the role he played in history. But no examination of him is complete without a careful look at the woman who was by his side for more than half his life.

Nancy Reagan, who at age 89 still lives in the Los Angeles home where President Reagan died in 2004, is remembered for several things: her impeccable appearance, her interest in astrology, the “gaze” she focused on her husband and the Just Say No anti-drug campaign.

As I learned in working on a documentary about her for [MacNeil/Lehrer Productions](http://home.macneil-lehrer.com/) (the parent company of the NewsHour), however, she was all that and much more. [The [documentary begins airing this weekend on most PBS stations](http://home.macneil-lehrer.com/2011/01/06/nancy-reagan-reflects-on-her-life-in-new-documentary/); please [check your local listings](http://www.pbs.org/hplink/redir/cgi-registry/whatson/index.cgir).]

For the program, [I interviewed Nancy Reagan over four days](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/nancy-reagan/2011/01/headline-1.html) in summer 2009, one of the only television interviews of its kind she has ever given. She has always insisted her goals were only to help her husband achieve his goals, and that she had no agenda of her own. But interviews with dozens of people who worked with both Reagans, as well as historians and journalists who have studied them, confirm she was far more influential in personnel decisions and even some policy, than the public knew. And she herself now acknowledges she worked behind the scenes, making personnel decisions that later helped moderate U.S. policy toward the then-Soviet Union, at a time when conservative Republicans were in fierce opposition.

Born Anne Francis Robbins to an aspiring actress and a struggling salesman, the girl later nicknamed Nancy was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Bethesda, Md., when she was just two or three years old. Her mother wanted to pursue her career on the road, and came to visit occasionally, but young Nancy missed her terribly, and recalls long unhappy spells as a little girl. Eventually, when Nancy turned 8-years-old, her mother re-married, this time to a successful Chicago neurosurgeon, and their lives became far more comfortable. But she displayed uncommon determination while still a teenager when she persuaded her birth father to give up custody so her mother’s husband, Dr. Loyal Davis, could adopt her.

That determination would become a Nancy Reagan trademark: she dated Ronald Reagan for three years before they married; and she became his protector throughout the more than three decades of his political career – starting with the 1966 campaign for governor of California. Friends and family describe her as bringing a grounded reality to his dreams, closely watching the people around him to make sure they had his best interests at heart and checking in constantly with “the outside world” to see how her husband’s moves were seen by the public. Former White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury Jim Baker told us Ronald Reagan would have never become president without her.

Indeed, the extent of her influence in the campaigns, and especially as first lady, virtually unknown until recently, places her among the top three most powerful first ladies of modern times, according to historian Allida Black, who ranks her after Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton.

It was Nancy Reagan who persuaded her husband to make political moderate Baker the chief of staff, rather than the more conservative Ed Meese. It was Mrs. Reagan who five years later helped push out the next chief of staff, Don Regan, when she felt he was more interested in his own career than her husband’s. And it was Nancy Reagan who helped orchestrate the removal of National Security Adviser William Clark over differences in dealing with the leaders of the Soviet Union. In fact, she worked quietly to make sure then-Secretary of State George Shultz, who shared her pro-détente views, got more face time with the president. Through all this, she made her wishes clearly known to staffers, many of whom feared her and with good reason, said longtime Reagan campaign strategist Stuart Spencer.

Later, Nancy Reagan helped bring her husband’s presidency back from the brink of its worst crisis, the Iran-Contra “trading arms for hostages” affair, by persuading him he needed to go before the American people to accept responsibility for what his administration had done.

To this day, Mrs. Reagan is uncomfortable with the public’s knowing that she exerted serious influence behind the scenes; she says she doesn’t want to detract in any way from the credit her husband is due for his two terms in office, considered iconic by most modern Republicans. But the job of president of the United States has grown so complex and demanding of an intensive team effort that it’s entirely natural to expect all modern First Ladies to be at or near the center of that team.

What we discovered is that this woman who took pains to appear most focused on throwing elegant state dinners and later, the “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, was in fact playing a crucial daily role in ensuring the success of her husband’s career, which just happened to be the most important job in the country.

Find more on “Nancy Reagan, Role of a Lifetime” here.