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Nancy Reagan was her husband's indispensable force

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Dennis Cook/AP/File

(Read caption) First lady Nancy Reagan and President Reagan walk on the White House South lawn, December 1986. The former first lady has died at 94, March 6, 2016.

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As first lady, Nancy Reagan did not normally meddle in policy matters. But when she thought it would serve the interests of President Reagan – and the United States – she did, in a way all her own.

September 1984 was one of those times. Her husband was heading toward a smashing reelection. He and his administration wanted to signal to the Soviet Union that they were open to a different and more productive relationship. So they invited Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to lunch. It was the first time a high USSR official had ever been publicly received at the White House.

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Pre-lunch cocktails were held in the Red Room. It was not a convivial scene. State Department officials, Soviet counterparts, diplomats, and translators were milling about. Gromyko himself was famously dour.

Enter Nancy Reagan, wearing a bright red dress. Everyone oohed and aahed. Gromyko seemed taken aback, said then-Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver in 2002.

The first lady walked up to the foreign minister, leaned over, and said, “My husband is really interested in this.”

Gromyko replied that if that was so she should tell husband to pray for peace. She said that she would. “I’ll pray for you too,” she added.

Her brief appearance became a big deal, according to Mr. Deaver. This was not due to any particular negotiation or deal at issue.

“She simply did that because she wanted to make an impression that would go back to the Kremlin,” said Deaver in an oral history for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “She was smart.”

Nancy Reagan, who passed away on Sunday, was an indispensable force in Ronald Reagan’s life and political career. From their marriage in 1952 to his death in 2004 she served as his constant companion, inspiration, sounding board, and enforcer. They were so close that their own children often felt outside their team of two.

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She was far from infallible. She did not recognize (at first) that her own taste for fine clothes and expensive redecoration could hurt her husband’s reputation. Her ire was infamous, and not always deserved, according to its recipients.

But all presidents should have their own Nancy Reagan, according to the late Richard Neustadt, one of the premier scholars of the American presidency. They need someone they know in their bones is looking out for them, not a separate agenda.

“Never let your Nancy be immobilized, could be a rule of thumb for future presidents,” Neustadt wrote in his book “Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents.”

Becoming Nancy Reagan

Her birth name was Anne Frances Robbins. She was born in 1921 in New York City into a family that was already falling apart. Her father, a car dealer, left her mother, radio actress Edith Prescott Luckett, when she was only a few months old. After an early life of instability her mother married a wealthy Chicago physician, Loyal Edward Davis. He adopted her and she took his surname, becoming Nancy Davis.

After graduating from Smith College, Ms. Davis took a screen test arranged in part by family friend Spencer Tracy, moved to California, and became an actress. Though not a first-rank star she worked steadily. In 1949 she met Ronald Reagan, who was then president of the Screen Actors Guild, when she sought his help after the name “Nancy Davis” appeared on a list of Hollywood actors and actresses opposed to the industry’s anti-Communist blacklist.

It was another Nancy Davis, she explained at a dinner meeting with Mr. Reagan, who was on crutches due to an injury. He assured her the incident would not affect her career. The rest is history. They married in 1952.

When “Ronnie” entered the political arena, his care and protection became Nancy’s full-time career. Deaver remembers that when he worked for then-Governor Reagan in California “everybody was scared of Nancy Reagan.”

He found it possible to deal with her by just explaining facts. One day she called to insist that Reagan’s Friday workday be cut as short as possible. Deaver explained that he had to meet with the state GOP leadership due to an important tax bill. She replied that made sense – and simply asked Deaver to get him out of town as early as he could.

She had better antenna on short-term issues than did her husband, according to Deaver. Many of their friends and associates from that era felt that Ronald Reagan would never have made it to the White House without his wife.

“If he hadn’t had Nancy, he never would have been President. I don’t think he really had the drive to take the steps to run for governor, for openers, and then later to run for President. She was a hugely positive force,” former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, one of Ronald Reagan’s oldest political and personal friends, told the Miller Center in 2001.

In the White House, Nancy did not suffer gladly anyone she thought was not acting in the best interests of her husband. She had little tolerance for fools and was not afraid to maneuver people in – and out – of high positions. She thought Reagan’s gubernatorial chief of staff Ed Meese was disorganized, for instance. He did not get the job of White House Chief of Staff in the first Reagan term.

Don Regan, Reagan’s second term chief of staff, incurred even higher levels of Nancy's displeasure. As a former CEO – he was head of Merrill Lynch – he did not feel it was always necessary to return the phone calls of his boss the president’s spouse.

“He just wouldn’t be deferential,” Laxalt remembered.

So when the Iran-Contra scandal threatened to blacken Reagan’s second term, Nancy blamed the chief of staff. He was ousted.

Regan's revenge was this: In his 1988 memoir he wrote that following the assassination attempt on her husband, Nancy had often relied on an astrologer for advice.

Ronnie could handle the Soviets

But it would be wrong to ascribe Nancy Reagan’s involvement in her husband’s staff lineup to petty irritation. She had her eye on his legacy as well.

“She certainly was looking out after his interests, but she was thinking more broadly,” former Secretary of State George P. Shultz told the Miller Center in 2002.

Thus her involvement in nudging her husband toward more accommodation with a Soviet Union that, in Reagan’s second term, had a dynamic new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who seemed more open to dealing with the West.

Conservatives were not always happy about this. William P. Clark, who was national security adviser in Reagan’s first term, felt that the “troika” of Nancy, Deaver, and James Baker were anxious that Reagan be seen as a “Peace President” and were too eager to make concessions.

It was the hard-line aspect of Reagan’s character – the Reagan who stood in front of the Berlin Wall and challenged Gorbachev to tear it down – that helped win the Cold War, in Clark’s view.

But Nancy Reagan “was a very strong factor in encouraging the closer relationships with the Soviet Union after the cold war had been won,” according to former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, no liberal himself.

Nancy was more willing to form a working relationship with the Soviets than were many of the administration’s top security officials. She was more willing to trust them. She thought Ronnie could handle them.

“She believed strongly in his negotiating capabilities,” Weinberger told the Miller Center.

In 1986, major summit talks between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, collapsed without agreement. But the ice was broken, and in 1987 the two leaders signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which removed an entire class of atomic weapons from the heart of Europe.

Out of office, Ronald Reagan eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the last years before her husband died, Nancy endured the physical and mental strain of dealing with a loved one who no longer recognized her presence. But the situation did bring about reconciliation with children Patti Davis and Ron Reagan, who had felt shut out by the very closeness of the parental relationship.

“Their love story is unprecedented, at least in modern times, and certainly in the modern Presidency,” Joanne Drake, an official in Reagan’s post-presidential office, told the Miller Center.