Like the presidents they accompany to the White House, first ladies can expect to be roasted in the white-hot glare of media scrutiny. Whether based on rumor, fact or both, the allegations hurled at the spouses of the leaders of the free world are frequently merciless. Mary Todd Lincoln, it was said, was crazy; Edith Wilson was a conspirator who tried to hide her husband’s debilitating stroke from the world; Eleanor Roosevelt was too active; Betty Ford was an alcoholic; Hillary Clinton was an opportunist, and/or a victim of her husband’s extramarital interests; and Michelle Obama cared too much about what we eat. And though her woes may be forgotten now that Clinton, perhaps the most criticized first lady in recent memory, is seeking a very different job at the White House, Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, ranks among the most pilloried, and sometimes ridiculed, first ladies of the 20th century to the point, she later confessed, that it often brought her to tears.

“In many ways, I think I served as a lightning rod; and in any case, I came to realize that while Ronald Reagan was an extremely popular president, some people didn’t like his wife very much,” she wrote in a 1989 memoir. “Something about me, or the image people had of me, just seemed to rub them the wrong way.”

First, she was pegged as a spendthrift. Dolley Madison and Jacqueline Kennedy were among the first ladies who had spearheaded White House renovations, but when Reagan, with $800,000 of donations — including more than $200,000 that would be spent on china — did the same, she was singled out.

Headline writers spoke of her “New China Policy,” as the New York Times reported at the time. Comedian Johnny Carson joked of her “favorite junk food — caviar.”

”Am I spending too much money?” she responded in writing to questions from the Times. “Seriously, I really haven’t changed my habits that much. I am just being myself. What I can say is that whatever I spend is our own money, which we have earned. As for spending on the White House, these are private funds — freely donated — to continue the dignity and grace of a home that belongs to the American people, and this becomes the heritage of all of us.”

“While I had no desire to turn the White House into an imperial palace, I did want to reclaim some of the stature and dignity of the building,” she wrote in her memoir, “My Turn.” “I’ve always felt that the White House should represent this country at its best. To me, this was so obvious that I never dreamed that I would be criticized for my efforts. If anything, I expected to be applauded.”

With her allegedly inappropriate interest in expensive furnishings came an allegedly inappropriate interest in expensive dresses — including some high-ticket items criticized because they were donated. As the New York Times put it: “For Mrs. Reagan, Gifts Mean High Fashion at No Cost.”

“I appreciate good clothes, but they certainly don’t rule my life,” Reagan wrote. “And I think it’s unfair to assume that when a women dresses well, it means she’s not doing much else…During my first six months in Washington, Sheila Tate, my press secretary, told me, something like 90 percent of the inquiries she received had to do with fashion. And they say I’m obsessed with clothes!”

Reagan had other things on her mind — such as the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, which she took to schools around the country as well as to the set of “Diff’rent Strokes” starting in 1982. Reagan herself came up with the catchphrase; no less an authority than Abbie Hoffman said the “campaign is a little bit like telling a manic-depressive to ‘Just Cheer up.’” And 30 years later, as the nation moves towards de-incarceration — and parts of it, including the nation’s capital, move toward legalization — it seems Hoffman may have won the argument.

“‘Just say no’ may sound okay, but what is needed are programs to teach people healthy lifestyles,” The Washington Post’s Dorothy Gilliam wrote in 1988. “Finally, the government simply has to come to the aid of big cities such as Washington, New York, Detroit and Chicago, where the drug problem is producing crime and chaos in the streets.”

Reagan was also questioned about her reliance on an astrologer in the White House — a decision that became a national punchline in newspapers that ran astrology columns. In her memoir, Reagan said astrology “was a factor” in determining her husband’s schedule,” but “no political decision was ever based on it.” She portrayed her relationship with astrologer Joan Quigley as the byproduct of stress about a repeat of the events of March 30, 1981 — the day John Hinckley tried to kill the president.

“My relationship with Joan Quigley began as a crutch, one of the several ways I tried to alleviate my anxiety about Ronnie,” she wrote. “Within a year or two, it had become a habit, something I relied on a little less but didn’t see the need to change. While I was never certain that Joan’s astrological advice was helping to protect Ronnie, the fact is that nothing like March 30 ever happened again.” She added: “Was astrology one of the reasons? I don’t really believe it was, but I don’t really believe it wasn’t. But do know this: It didn’t hurt, and I’m not sorry I did it.”

Reagan was even criticized for her decision to have a mastectomy after her breast cancer diagnosis in 1987. Some said a lumpectomy would have sufficed; Rose Kushner, the executive director of the Breast Cancer Advisory Center in Kensington, Md., said the choice ”set us back 10 years.” And, in a different time, much criticism seemed related to the surgery’s effect on her appearance. Reagan even felt compelled to explain her decision to Barbara Walters. The New York Times in 1988:

Mrs. Reagan also told Ms. Walters that, in the recovery room she had repeatedly apologized to her husband, saying, ”I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry for you.”
Asked whether she had felt guilt that her mastectomy somehow deprived her husband, Mrs. Reagan said, ”I guess it’s a normal female reaction, isn’t it? I suppose it must be, even though I’m not 20 years old.”

In the end, at least she could look back on a tearful time with no regrets.

“I often cried during those eight years,” she wrote. “There were times when I just didn’t know what to do, or how I would survive. But even so, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I did things I never dreamed I could do, went places I never imagined I’d go, grew in ways I never thought possible.”

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