Nancy Reagan is trying a new approach at answering criticism that she is extravagant: one-liners.
Borrowing a page from her husband -- and probably from a recent houseguest of theirs, that master of the one-liner, Bob Hope -- she took some pokes at herself. She was speaking before 1,600 formally clad guests Thursday night in New York City at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner run by the city's Roman Catholic Archdiocese to raise money for health-care facilities.
Mrs. Reagan dismissed the popular doctored postcards depicting her as a queen, saying: "Now that's silly. I'd never wear a crown -- it messes up your hair."
Then there was her new china policy.
Discussing her work with Foster Grandparents and with drug-abuse programs, she asked listeners at the $200-a-plate fund raiser in the Waldorf-Astoria's Grand Ballroom if they had heard of her latest program: "the Nancy Reagan Home for Wayward China."
"Although there are many critics, I'm very glad I raised as much money as I did for the White House," Mrs. Reagan continued. "Ronnie thinks I did such a good job, he wants me to help work on the deficit."
Yesterday, Sheila Tate, the first lady's press secretary, said the jokes had been contributed by "a lot of people" but declined to identify any of them. She said that Mrs. Reagan had "edited" them.
"She changed the speech herself. I had a rough-typed version to hand out but she changed it so much I didn't hand it out," said Tate, who did not contribute a specific joke "though I gave her my opinion on which ones I thought were best."When asked if this was a new approach for the first lady, Tate said, "I don't know. Mrs. Reagan has a good sense of humor, but I'm not sure its always evident."
Mrs. Reagan's performance comes after public-opinion polls have shown a more unfavorable sentiment about her than there has been toward other recent presidents' wives in the early days of their husbands' administrations.
By way of comparison, when the Gallup organization sampled the public opinion on Pat Nixon in March 1969, and Rosalynn Carter in May 1977, 8 percent expressed disapproval of Mrs. Nixon and 7 percent voiced disapproval of Mrs. Carter. In a June 1981 Gallup poll, Nancy Reagan drew an 18-percent unfavorable rating.
The Washington Post-ABC News Poll sampled 1,505 persons across the country in the period between Oct. 14 and Oct. 18, asking this question:
What is your impression of the first lady, Nancy Reagan? As of today, is it very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, very unfavorable, or haven't you heard enough about her yet to say?
More than one-third (37 percent) are people who are reserving judgment. There are more people expressing approval of her (17 percent very favorable; 27 percent somewhat favorable) than disapproval (12 percent somewhat unfavorable; 7 percent very unfavorable).
The overall impression, therefore, is favorable, by 44 to 19 percent. But even with so many people reserving judgment, the negative sentiment toward Nancy Reagan appears to be at least double what it was toward other recent first ladies.