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Remembering Former First Lady Nancy Reagan


Finally today, a few more words about Nancy Reagan. The presidential candidates as well as President Obama, former Presidents George W. Bush, President Clinton have joined the many paying tribute to former first lady Nancy Reagan, who died this morning at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94. The cause of death was congestive heart failure. She might be best known for her campaign against drug use - Just Say No in the 1980s - and for passionately promoting Ronald Reagan's legacy after he left the White House and through the many years that he battled Alzheimer's disease. NPR's Pam Fessler has this look at Mrs. Reagan's life.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Nancy Reagan's major role in life was to be the supportive, adoring wife of the nation's 40th president. Admirers and detractors alike marveled at their close relationship and how it sustained them during the sometimes grueling journey of public life. She was President Reagan's fiercest protector and eventually his nurse as he battled Alzheimer's. As first lady, Mrs. Reagan was criticized for expensive tastes and for meddling in White House affairs. But her husband's difficult final days brought her widespread sympathy. At the 1996 Republican Convention, she had many, including herself, in tears.


NANCY REAGAN: Just four years ago, Ronnie stood before you and spoke for what he said might be his last speech at a Republican Convention. Sadly, his words were too prophetic.

FESSLER: Over the next eight years, Mrs. Reagan watched as her once powerful husband deteriorated both physically and mentally. It was a long, sad goodbye for a woman who said her life truly began when she married Ronald Reagan. She was born in 1921 as Anne Frances Robbins. She became an actress like her mother, but as she later told C-SPAN, it was hardly a passion.


REAGAN: I had gone to college and graduated and hadn't found the man I wanted to marry. And I didn't want to sit in Chicago and do nothing. So I became an actress.


FESSLER: Her big break came in 1949, when as Nancy Davis she landed a seven-year contract with MGM. She went on to make a number of moderately-successful films. But as Ronald Reagan biographer Edmund Morris says, her real career began when she met the handsome president of the Screen Actors Guild.

EDMUND MORRIS: Nancy loved Ronald Reagan with a consuming passion. He was her one and only reason for existence.

FESSLER: The two married in 1952. And in 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California. As the state's first lady, Mrs. Reagan got her first taste of political sniping, most often for the doe-eyed, adoring look she always gave her husband, something known as the gaze. But that was nothing compared to the criticism Mrs. Reagan faced when she came to Washington and decided to redecorate the White House and to buy expensive new china. First lady historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony says it wasn't the best move, with the new administration cutting billions from the federal budget.

CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY: Doing this at a time of recession and high unemployment made her an unwitting symbol for the Democrats of everything that was wrong about so-called Reaganomics. And she was very hurt by this.

FESSLER: He says it would take Mrs. Reagan years to learn how much impact her actions as first lady could have. But those initial controversies were soon overshadowed.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. President...


FESSLER: The attempted assassination of President Reagan in March, 1981 devastated the first lady, who saw all too clearly how quickly her husband could be taken away.


REAGAN: He came very close to dying. I don't think most people knew that then. I don't think most people know it now. But there were two times that they came to me and said they couldn't find his pulse.

FESSLER: She told NPR's Terry Gross in 1989 that it was then she decided to consult an astrologer.


REAGAN: When a friend called me and said, I know this lady who said that if she'd only could have gotten to you, she could have told you that he shouldn't have done anything that day - and I thought, oh, my Lord. I could have - I could have saved him maybe.

FESSLER: She began to rely on the astrologer to help set the president's agenda, something the public wouldn't know for years. Mrs. Reagan also began to take on the more traditional first lady role of promoting a pet project, in her case the Just Say No anti-drug campaign. She spoke on the issue around the country and in 1986 joined the president for a televised address to the nation.


REAGAN: We want you to help us create an outspoken intolerance for drug use. For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs.

FESSLER: But that didn't stop the criticism. In Reagan's second term, the first lady was increasingly accused of interfering in White House affairs. When one reporter asked the president about U.S.-Soviet space weapons talks, she was overheard whispering, we're doing everything we can, something Mr. Reagan promptly repeated. But Carl Sferrazza Anthony says Mrs. Reagan had only one goal in mind - protecting her husband and his image.

ANTHONY: Mrs. Reagan, I think, had enormous political influence without always intending to.

FESSLER: He says she was constantly on the lookout for anyone she thought didn't have her husband's best interests at heart, most notably White House Chief of Staff Don Regan, whose ouster she helped to orchestrate. It was telling that Regan's replacement, former Sen. Howard Baker, was grilled by reporters his first day on the job about his relationship with the first lady.


DONALD REGAN: She's a great lady, and she obviously is a lady of strong convictions. That's what I meant.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What are you going to talk to her about when you talk to her today?

REGAN: Whatever she wants to talk about.

FESSLER: Edmund Morris says Mrs. Reagan's political instincts were invaluable for a president inclined to trust and like everyone around him.

MORRIS: He needed a screen, a protector. That's the only real political function she formed for him. She could see a predator coming from a mile off.

FESSLER: Carl Sferrazza Anthony adds that Mrs. Reagan was more independent and outspoken than many gave her credit for. He notes, for example, that the first lady was pro choice in a pro-life administration. He thinks she also grew with the job.

ANTHONY: You see a woman who, despite having been an actress, was at first slightly uncomfortable even giving the Teacher of the Year award and then eight years later is addressing the United Nations General Assembly.

FESSLER: In fact, she was the first first lady to do so. And she continued to have an impact long after leaving the White House. She became a strong advocate of stem cell research in the hope it would lead to an Alzheimer's cure, even though it put her at odds with many Republicans. But she clearly became the party's matriarch, a reminder of a popular president and the woman who protected him. At a June, 2009 ceremony to unveil a statue of her husband in the Capitol rotunda, Mrs. Reagan was greeted with extended applause from lawmakers of both parties. Her voice cracked as she noted that the last time she'd been in the room had been for her husband's state funeral. She then thanked everyone for all their support and left the stage. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this story, we say that Nancy Reagan was the first first lady to address the United Nations General Assembly. While she was the first one to do so while her husband was in office, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the UN in December 1948.]


REAGAN: That's it. (Laughter).


REAGAN: Thank you.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: March 6, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
In the audio, as in a previous Web version of this story, we say that Nancy Reagan was the first first lady to address the U.N. General Assembly. While she was the first one to do so while her husband was in office, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the U.N. in December 1948.
Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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