Only when everybody was back aboard Executive One heading home to Washington Tuesday night was Nancy Reagan's White House staff convinced that she'd finally done it. She was finally being noticed more for her social awareness than her social life.
"I've lost my misgivings about it, about whether drug abuse among kids was something she could make an impact on," said Sheila Tate, the first lady's press secretary. "We'd taken stabs at it with Phoenix House, Daytop Village and Second Genesis, but people were never really aware she was involved."
This time, though, on her two-day swing into Florida and Texas, Nancy Reagan scored some stunning media successes as she observed the drug abuse programs. After months of publicity about her tastes in clothes, china and White House redecorating had been contrasted with the country's growing economic problems, the first lady's often-stated interest in drug abuse prevention was claiming the headlines.
On the second morning of the trip Tate expressed pleasure over prominent stories in local and national newspapers as well as extensive television network coverage.
By evening, Tate, Dr. Carlton Turner, the White House policy adviser on drugs, James Rosebush, the first lady's chief of staff, and Ann Wrobleski, her projects director, decided the trip had gone so well that prospects for a second trip looked promising. And by Wednesday morning, back in the White House, they started to plan it--her attendance April 2 in Atlanta at the eighth annual conference of the Parents Research Institute for Drug Education.
Whatever misgivings Nancy Reagan and her staff may have had at the outset had been dispelled.
"She had an enormous concern that she be effective and that she not take it on just because she had talked about it," said Wrobleski. "It took some time to take a look at it and figure out where she best fit in. This trip has built my confidence. I can't help but think it's built hers."
Wrobleski said she felt the focus that she, Turner and others had decided on--that parents are the best line of defense in the fight against drugs--was right on target.
Although the White House could hardly have been happier about what the trip was doing for Mrs. Reagan's image, "image" is a word Nancy Reagan's staff assiduously avoids.
"Obviously, something like this where we are able to draw attention to the drug problem gives the public a better perception of her," said Tate.
Even so, public perceptions of Nancy Reagan have been reliably reported to be causing concern in the upper levels of the White House. The president articulated his frustrations in a show of emotion before a nationwide television audience, saying his wife had gotten "a bit of a bum rap" on the White House china, which cost $209,508 in donated money.
During the Richard Allen affair, the first lady reportedly asked her husband's White House advisers whether free designer clothes she had been accepting might fall into the same category as the Japanese wristwatches given to the then-national security adviser.
In January, the White House announced she was donating some of the clothes to American museums as part of her effort to support the American fashion industry.
The morning after she returned from Texas with all the prominent media coverage, another step was disclosed: She was not going to accept free designer clothes any longer because her motives had been misunderstood.
"She made the decision to do it," according to Tate, and told chief of staff James Rosebush.
"We were very pleased with the quantity and quality of the coverage and Mrs. Reagan's ability to attract the kind she did," said Tate. "We've had good feedback, and we're all in high spirits that it went so well."
On the road the aim had been to show her visiting a full circle of drug abuse programs. In Florida, at a treatment program called STRAIGHT, that also meant high drama as she watched teen-agers and parents recount what drugs had done to their lives.
"There's nothing as awful for a parent as having something happen to their child, nothing as hurtful," she told the audience of nearly 1,000 in a hall outside St. Petersburg. "I believe in the whole family unit, which I think we've gotten away from."
The applause echoed along behind her as she flew off to Texas, and pictures of her with tears in her eyes at the end of her brief remarks hit the newspapers and television news shows around the country.
By the time they were airborne for Washington, relief mixed with elation seemed to buoy Nancy Reagan's staff. There were also questions: Why hadn't Rosalynn Carter captured more public attention with her efforts on behalf of mental health? And how did the press compare Nancy Reagan's trip to those taken by Rosalynn?
"We thought we put together a solid trip. It seemed to us that providing every opportunity to share Mrs. Reagan's events made good sense," said Wrobleski.
She said she hadn't been on the trip to England last summer, when access to the first lady was severely limited.
"Counterproductive," said a magazine reporter.
"We're trying to learn from our experiences," said Wrobleski.