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An American icon: remembering Nancy Reagan

Former first lady Nancy Reagan died of heart failure Sunday at age 94. Long considered an American icon, Reagan was known for her anti-drug advocacy and unfailing support for her husband; she often said that her sole mission in life was to back her “Ronnie.” Hari Sreenivasan talks to presidential historian Michael Beschloss and James Rosebush, Nancy Reagan’s White House chief of staff, for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now we remember a first lady who kept a high profile and was an influential force.

    Nancy Reagan long said her sole mission was to back her Ronnie, and strengthen his presidency.

    In one of her last interviews, she spoke to Judy Woodruff for a 2011 PBS documentary. She discussed her role balancing out her husband.

  • NANCY REAGAN, Former First Lady:

    I think I was a little bit more realistic about people than — than he was. And that was my contribution.

    It was just being aware of people and what they were doing.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Do you think that you were more intuitive, that you could read people better than your husband could?

  • NANCY REAGAN:

    Sometimes, yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Just three months into the presidency, the assassination attempt on President Reagan shook the fiercely protective first lady.

  • NANCY REAGAN:

    My Secret Service guy said, "There's been a shooting, but don't worry. The president is all right."

    Well, I'm starting for the elevator and they said, "But he's all right. He hasn't been hit."

    And I say to them, "You either find me or a car, or I will walk."

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As you said, they didn't know at first he had been hit. And even when they knew he had been hit, they couldn't find the bullet. Isn't that right?

  • NANCY REAGAN:

    Yes, they — no, they couldn't. The bullet had lodged so close to his heart, it was just a miracle that it didn't go into his heart.

    I remember one nurse came to me and said, "We may just have to leave it in there." Well, that didn't sound like a very good idea to me. But they finally got it, but the whole thing was a miracle.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You have commented a number of times that that had a huge effect on you and it changed you in some ways.

  • NANCY REAGAN:

    Oh, yes, of course it did. Every time he went out the door, I don't think I took a deep breath until he got back.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Nancy Reagan also served as a political partner. She influenced and supported her husband's policy towards the Soviet Union, including some of his most famous words.

  • NANCY REAGAN:

    When he gave the speech, "Tear down this wall," there were many, many people in the administration who didn't think that he should say that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It must have been impossible for you to just kind of sit back and watch all that happen.

  • NANCY REAGAN:

    Well, I didn't just sit back. You know, I was talking to people.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Because you felt that this was something that was going to be part of your husband's legacy as president.

  • NANCY REAGAN:

    Well, he believed in it strongly, as did I.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Years later, President Reagan developed Alzheimer's, and the first lady became his primary caregiver, until his death in 2004.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Did you feel you had the chance to say goodbye to him?

  • NANCY REAGAN:

    Yes. As a matter of fact, he gave me a wonderful gift at that time. He was in bed.

    And, suddenly, he turned his hand and opened his eyes and looked at me. And then he closed his eyes and went. And that was a wonderful gift.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We take a closer look at the remarkable life of Nancy Reagan with James Rosebush, who served in a variety of roles at the Reagan White House, including chief of staff to the first lady, and presidential historian and "NewsHour" regular Michael Beschloss.

    James, I want to start with you.

    You saw the first lady in a way that most of us could never imagine. That's really starting at 7:00 a.m. And you have said before that she's done more work before 7:00 in the morning than you expected anyone to.

    JAMES ROSEBUSH, Chief of Staff to Nancy Reagan: That's right.

    By the time I got to the office and went to the senior staff meeting, she'd read all the morning papers, she had seen all the morning shows, she had the advanced copies of the newsweeklies, and she knew exactly what she thought.

    So she was a highly intelligent woman. I think that was lost on a lot of people. They didn't recognize that. And she was engaged not only in her own program and schedule, but very observant of what the president was doing. And she was a person who, therefore, was easy to work for, because she knew what she wanted and she communicated it well.

    And it was obviously an extraordinary honor to work for her, to work for both of them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Michael, what he's describing is almost what you would expect from a chief of staff, not necessarily just a first lady.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian:

    That's what I have always thought.

    You might have, for instance, Hillary Clinton, who at the beginning of her husband's administration was given this health care project, but Nancy Reagan without any title other than first lady really was sort of an alternative chief of staff, because she roamed the whole lot and also particularly kept an guy on who in the entourage was helping her husband and who wasn't.

    And it worked well in the first term, when Jim Baker was chief of staff. He saw that as an asset to be able to tap her skills and expertise and, you know, what she could tell him about what the president wanted and didn't want. Didn't work so well second term, when there was a chief of staff named Don Regan, who had a very exalted idea of his own place in the universe, finally hung up on the first lady after they had words.

    He did not last for long.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Yes.

    James, how — paint us a picture, if you can, of what sort of power or influence she held. And she made sure that she stayed out of policy decisions, but when it came to personnel, ultimately, she, I guess, is the last word that influences the president's ear.

  • JAMES ROSEBUSH:

    I also want to quickly add, though, that she was acutely aware of the fact that she wasn't elected, she wasn't an employee of the federal government, and she didn't enjoy the recognition of an official position in the federal government.

    So there were times, for example, when I was lobbied to have Nancy Reagan come up to Capitol Hill and to testify on issues related to her programs, in particular trying to arrest the advance of youthful drug abuse and the ravages that that causes in individual lives.

    And they were genuine requests: Come up and tell us about what you're doing, what we should be doing on Capitol Hill. I was all for that. She was completely against it, which shows you what I knew. She didn't want to appear in any way to be influencing policy or government spending in any way.

    So, in terms of her impact on what her husband's policies were, I would say she was observant, but she wasn't a participant, she wasn't a direct participant.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    And always when she was first lady and afterwards wanted this idea of her as sort of the eminence grise, she didn't want people to think that.

    I knew her a tiny bit in later years. And I once talked to her about that. And she said: "It was all Ronnie. Don't pay attention to me. I really didn't have a large role in that administration."

    I knew at the time that that wasn't quite true. I think, as time goes on, we will find that her role was very large.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When you think about, Michael, in historical contact, the previous two or three first ladies before her and what kind of a departure that was, maybe even the tone that it set for the country, it was different.

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    It was, although Rosalynn Carter had attended Cabinet meetings, got a lot of flak for that. Nancy Reagan wouldn't have dreamt of doing that.

    But when you think about it, Hari, in the 1980s, Nancy Reagan was criticized in many circles for being overly adoring and uncritical of her husband and also for acting as his political partner, especially on key occasions.

    Nowadays, I think things have changed enough that we would celebrate her for doing most those things. And it is amazing to look back and think that those were two of the things she caught the most flak for.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    James, when you worked with her, what did you think her legacy was going to be, vs. now, decades later, knowing what she's accomplished?

  • JAMES ROSEBUSH:

    Yes, it's interesting.

    The whole concept of legacy is interesting, and I will comment on that. But to pick up on something Michael brought up, I think that one thing that's lost on the public is that people go through these extreme situations, these high — I would say high-wattage leadership positions, particularly in American politics.

    They evolve over time. They change. They develop. Hopefully, they deepen as a result of the experiences they go through. And Nancy Reagan wasn't immune to that. I saw her grow as a person. I saw her develop additional skills.

    And I remember among the things that she did as a first among first ladies was to speak at the General Assembly of the United Nations on the issue drugs. And I remember, when she went to New York to do that talk, she was asked about this very issue. What was she really doing? Was she having an impact on policy?

    And she said, "Well, do you expect me to sit at home sorting out my husband's sock drawer?"

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JAMES ROSEBUSH:

    And that drew a lot of laughter.

    But she grew in her role. I think she grew in her confidence. She grew in understanding the issues, and naturally. She was well-educated and she was a very bright person. And she didn't — I think at that point she probably came into her own with a higher degree of confidence that, yes, she did have something to say.

    So, I think she has a dual legacy and I think it's interesting. She has — and she gets a lot of credit for and sympathy, particularly in the later years, of taking care of her husband, and which she did throughout their marriage, but in an official capacity, and then during the 10 years of his disability.

    But I would like to think that she will also get credit for being an intelligent, independent woman, leader who was devoted to her country and worked hard to promote the American ideal as best she could on her own as well.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Michael, a legacy for her?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS:

    I think she made it possible for Ronald Reagan to become president and to become a major president.

    He had many qualities. One of them wasn't an ability to see through people who might do him harm or not serve him well. Nancy Reagan did that so well. And the other thing is that she wasn't ideological.

    Maybe the biggest thing she did during that presidency was, in the middle 1980s, she went to her husband and said, too many people think you're being too energetic in pursuing the Cold War. Show them that you're a peacemaker.

    And he began with symbolism, finally wound up working with Gorbachev to do a lot to end the Cold War. That began with her. Her big goal was always, how can I help my husband, not, how can I pursue an ideological agenda?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Michael Beschloss, James Rosebush, thanks so much.

  • JAMES ROSEBUSH:

    Pleasure, Hari.

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