As a young reporter with the San Diego Union in 1979, I was assigned to cover the presidential campaign of California’s former governor Ronald Reagan. His senior aides Californians Ed Meese, Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger were friends of my top editors Jerry Warren and Peter Kaye, so I had enviable access despite not being in the ranks of national reporter big shots.
But Reagan himself was already in a bubble, insulated by top aides who were worried what he might say off-the-cuff. So from the September 1979 day we took off from New York after Reagan’s announcement, he remained an opaque figure to those of us who spent 14 months covering him. His wife Nancy was the Reagan with whom we had the most personal contact.
The Governor, as he was called, didn’t come to the back of the plane to chit-chat with us as other candidates do in a campaign’s early days. But the perfectly coiffed Nancy came back nearly every flight, as the plane took off to a blaring track of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” tossing an orange down the aisle to see if it would roll straight enough to reach the back. Other times she handed out cookies or chocolates. She didn’t tell us a thing of reporting value. “Wasn’t Ronnie wonderful?” was the most she ever said to me.
But she was our window into Reagan the man, not just the man on stage. We used to make fun of her adoring stare during Reagan’s appearances, calling it “The Gaze.” Yet we soon realized she was no Stepford Wife, but a woman deeply in love with her husband, and influential behind the scenes.
The rumpled, irreverent Nofziger told me early on that she had no aspirations to be a Rosalynn Carter, claiming a seat at Reagan Cabinet meetings. “But in private,” he said “let’s say you don’t want to be crosswise with her.” Indeed we soon saw just how ferociously she guarded her husband from advisers she thought were serving their own agenda, not his.
The brilliant and well-spoken John Sears, a Washington lawyer and political strategist who’d been hired as campaign manager, was the first victim. In late January 1980, George Herbert Walker Bush upset Reagan in the Jan. 21 Iowa caucuses. I snagged a flight to New Hampshire on Bush’s tiny plane sitting on an ice chest, as his ebullient advisers reveled in his overnight 20-point lead over Reagan in the New Hampshire polls.
The loss had been a real shock to the over-funded ocean liner that the Reagan campaign had become. So the next five weeks, the staff operation struggled to adjust while being torn by infighting. Sears wanted to follow his original strategy of protecting Reagan’s front-runner status, limiting his unscripted appearances. The Californians told me Reagan was protesting, saying he wanted to “campaign the way I want to campaign.” Word was out that Nancy Reagan blamed the smooth, confident Sears for caring more about grooming his own reputation than making the most of Reagan’s strengths. Shortly before the primary, the Sears cadre suspected their days were numbered, “John’s a dead man,” one told me. “We all are.”
It all came to a head in Nashua, New Hampshire, three days before the primary. Nashua Telegraph editor Jon Breen, a former editor of mine in New Hampshire, had set up a two-man debate between Bush and Reagan, ignoring such luminary competitors as senators Howard Baker and Bob Dole.
By some machination, the Reagan campaign arranged to finance the entire event. Early in the afternoon, Sears announced Reagan wanted to include all the other candidates, including Dole and Baker. But Bush was refusing and Breen was siding with him. And there it stood.
We sat in the stuffy auditorium audience with more than 2,000 people, as the 7:30 p.m. start time came and went. (As a neophyte, my big thrill was sitting next to famed Washington Post’s David Broder.) We sensed a struggle was underway back stage. But we didn’t understand it nor the role Nancy Reagan was playing.
With Bush and Breen standing firm on a two-candidate format, Reagan was inclined to boycott the event with all the other candidates. Then, according to political consultant and biographer Craig Shirley, Nancy Reagan came up with the idea. “I know what you are going to do,” she said. “You are all going to go in there together.” The battle plan was set.
Bush went on stage and took his seat. When Reagan walked up, he motioned for other candidates to follow him and they did. The audience tensed as the stand-off unfolded. An angry Breen refused to let Reagan speak and tried unsuccessfully to shut off his microphone. Then an equally angry Reagan declared, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.” It didn’t matter that Reagan had mispronounced the editor’s name. The crowd erupted in mayhem and applause, as Bush — clinging to the “rules” and unable to improvise — stared ahead woodenly.
Reagan won the night — and the primary three days later by a stunning 50 to 23 percent. Bush stayed in the race, and ended up as vice president. But in that one moment Reagan showed American voters that beneath his canned speeches and geniality, he was as tough as his movie cowboy persona, a genuine leader who couldn’t be pushed around.
John Sears and his team were gone the next day. The episode had catapulted Reagan back to the head of the path to the presidency. And it had revealed Nancy Reagan as tough as well, insightful and shrewd about what her husband needed in support to actually shine. Attention was paid.
It’s often said that “personnel is policy.” Nancy Reagan clearly thought so. Covering the Reagan White House in his second term for Newsweek, I saw her intervene at other critical junctures. Many are familiar stories by now. She’d always thought White House chief of staff Don Regan, former head of Merrill Lynch, was — as the saying went — more interested in being “chief” than “staff.” When the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal exploded, she blamed Regan for not protecting her Ronnie. Within days, Regan was gone. Future chiefs of staff took the message to heart. A subsequent successor as chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, told me he called her every morning.
This wasn’t her ego at work, but her fierce desire to have Reagan be his best. His “best” required a little prodding from her at times. Substantively, she quietly but consistently urged Reagan to listen to his pragmatic advisers , rather than the ideologues among them. Although Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire,” she was determined he would go down in history as a “man of peace,” not simply a cold warrior.
And so even before reformist Mikhail Gorbachev became USSR leader in 1985, she and Secretary of State George Shultz helped engineer a dialogue between her husband and then-Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
And once Gorbachev took power, she later acknowledged, “I felt there had to be a breakthrough. I didn’t just sit back.” In Berlin, I perched on a corner of the stage as her husband called on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” But he went on to hold four summits and negotiate a far-reaching intermediate range nuclear arms control agreement with the Soviets.
Though “modern” in the sway she exerted, Nancy Reagan was not a first lady to tout her influence publicly, nor leak stories or give interviews about her contrary views to soften his imagine. (Although she did build private personal friendships with influential Democrats like Washington Post editor Katharine Graham and former DNC chairman and power broker Robert Strauss.) She understood she was most effective behind the scenes, and that was just fine with her.
When Nancy talked, Ronnie listened. And for him, for his legacy and for the nation, it was a good thing he did.