It marked the first time, after their 52-year marriage, that she couldn’t control her access to him. In “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan,” her deeply researched and compellingly crafted biography of the 40th president’s second wife, Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty paints a striking portrait of how this unique partnership shaped Ronald Reagan’s political career, from the California governor’s mansion to the White House.
A historian recently told me she couldn’t care less about presidential marriages. But we should, not only because these partnerships can be fascinating windows into presidential character but also because they frequently shape the paths of politics and policy. How so and how much are perennial questions for first lady biographers and scholars. Because presidential spouses serve in unelected, unofficial roles, the American people draw strict limits around their perceived influence. Stray too far beyond their parameters, as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton were thought to have done by their adversaries, and a backlash can result.
As she entered the White House in 1981, Nancy Reagan rarely emphasized public policy as a primary concern. With her celebrity patina and designer fashion tastes, she resembled Jacqueline Kennedy more than feminists Betty Ford or Rosalynn Carter. Nancy’s unyielding and adoring gaze focused solely on her husband. In each other, the Reagans discovered the missing elements of their difficult childhoods. Alcoholism plagued Ronnie’s father and created an unstable family that moved frequently as his job prospects deteriorated. The future president adored his pious mother, who encouraged his early stage performances.
Instability also marked Nancy’s youth, as her father abandoned the family and her mother pursued an acting career, leaving her only child to be raised by an aunt. Relying on Nancy’s previously unavailable personal papers at the Reagan library and interviews with her son and stepbrother, Tumulty is able to construct a persuasive portrait of the future first lady’s character development. Only when her mother married a prominent neurosurgeon, Loyal Davis, did the young girl attain security. Her strict but doting father sent her to elite private girls’ schools and Smith College. This new lifestyle suited Nancy and sparked her desire for the finer things in life.
Aided by her mother’s friendship with actor Spencer Tracy, Nancy made her way to Hollywood and MGM, where she signed a film contract but never achieved stardom. In 1949, as McCarthyism invaded Hollywood, Nancy met with Ronald Reagan, then head of the Screen Actors Guild, for advice on how to distinguish herself from an actress by the same name who had been blacklisted. Nancy was taken by his good looks, and, as Tumulty writes, she “was entranced by Ronnie’s lack of movie-star ego and his seemingly bottomless inventory of amusing stories.”
His own movie career was waning, as was his troubled marriage to actress Jane Wyman. Nancy later recalled, “I don’t know if it was love at first sight, but it was something close to it.”
The Reagans’ love affair lasted until his death. They couldn’t bear to be apart, even for a few days. He called her “Mommie.” She referred to him as “my Ronnie.” He poured out his adoration in worshipful notes that Tumulty cites throughout the biography. They aren’t exactly on par with the Brownings’ love letters or Shakespearean sonnets, but, like the president’s public messages, they are heartfelt and poignant. Unless the reader eschews saccharine, Ronnie’s missives to Nancy should strike a resonant chord even among his staunchest critics. “Man can’t live without a heart,” he declared the year after their marriage, “and you are my heart, by far the nicest thing about me and so very necessary. There would be no life without you nor would I want any.”
Likewise, Nancy couldn’t imagine the world without her beloved. Seeing him lying in a hospital emergency room, white as the sheet that covered him, his lips blue, his lifeblood draining away after the March 1981 assassination attempt, haunted her forever. Never again would she take for granted anything about their storybook marriage or his presidency. She consulted an astrologer and demanded that the president’s staff schedule him around horoscope predictions.
More important, Tumulty chronicles in convincing detail just how the first lady’s interventions in White House staffing, her dreaded phone calls to advisers and her presidential pillow talk shaped the administration, if not necessarily its policies. Anyone she believed could mar her husband’s image incurred her eternal wrath, among them director of political affairs Lyn Nofziger (too unpolished), counselor to the president Edwin Meese (too dogmatic), Chief of Staff Donald Regan (too self-serving) and the National Security Council’s deputy director of political-military affairs, Oliver North (responsible for embroiling the administration in the Iran-contra scandal). The president hated confrontation, especially firing staffers, so Nancy often took the lead in engineering personnel changes.
These actions had one steadfast purpose for the first lady: She wanted to let Ronnie be Ronnie, and that was when he was at his best. With their Hollywood backgrounds, both Reagans were masterful image-makers, as were many of their advisers, such as the president’s first chief of staff, James Baker, and the first lady’s press secretary, Sheila Tate. They occasionally had to fine-tune Nancy’s political tin ear, as demonstrated when she ordered new china for the White House, wore haute couture fashions (which designers loaned her but she kept without reimbursing them) and entertained lavishly — all during an economic recession.
Tumulty’s biography, sympathetic yet objective, captures Reagan-era ironies: a president and first lady who preached conservative “family values,” but married after Nancy became pregnant in 1952 and then fostered fraught relations with their children — Patti, Ron and Michael, Ronnie’s adopted son with Wyman. They got along better with Maureen, Ronnie and Wyman’s biological daughter, a staunch conservative, but as son Ron observed, the Reagans so completed each other that they had no room for anyone inside their tight circle. In another paradox, the first lady preached “Just say no” to drugs, but like many women from her background and socioeconomic class, she relied on pharmaceuticals, especially when worries disrupted her sleep.
Whatever got Nancy through the night, it helped ensure that she had the energy and stamina to play the ultimate role of her life, that of a first lady who unstintingly made her husband the best president he could be — at least in her adoring eyes and among his legions of admirers.
The Triumph of Nancy Reagan
By Karen Tumulty
Simon & Schuster.
662 pp. $32.50