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March 8, 2016

Nancy Reagan’s legacy: Devoted wife, caregiver, political partner

Essential question

What role do you think the First Lady of the United States should play?

Former first lady Nancy Reagan died of heart failure on Sunday in Bel-Air, California at age 94. Reagan became First Lady in 1981 when husband Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the country’s 40th president.

During Ronald Reagan’s eight years in office, the First Lady became known for her anti-drug campaign, including the famous slogan “Just Say No.” She showed unflinching support of her husband, even drawing criticism from some who saw her as too doting.

In one of her last major interviews in a 2011 PBS documentary, Reagan discussed her role balancing out her husband. “I think I was a little bit more realistic about people than he was,” Reagan said.

Reagan also influenced and supported her husband’s policy towards the Soviet Union, including some of his most famous words. “Tear down this wall,” President Reagan said in a 1987 speech in front of the Berlin Wall aimed at the Soviet Union’s leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Years later, President Reagan developed Alzheimer’s, and the first lady became his primary caregiver until his death in 2004. In recent years, Reagan became a key proponent of stem cell research to treat Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to a devoted wife, “I would like to think that she will also get credit for being an intelligent, independent woman,” said James Rosebush, chief of staff to Nancy Reagan.

Warm up questions (before watching the video)
  1. What do you know about former First Lady Nancy Reagan? What about her husband President Reagan?
  2. What are the duties of a First Lady?
  3. Do you think the job of a First Lady is difficult?
Critical thinking questions (after watching the video)
  1. In what ways do you think the role of the First Lady has changed over time?
  2. Historians, political scientists as well as the general public often see fit to dissect the role of the First Lady. What do you think is the public’s fascination with the role of the First Lady?
  3. What do you think Nancy Reagan’s legacy will be?
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