Nancy Reagan has passed away. Here are some excerpts that I wrote about her in my book, The Faith of America’s First Ladies. God Bless you Nancy for your service to our country.
Handling Criticism with Grace
If anyone experienced criticism during her years in the White House, it was Nancy Reagan. Nothing was off limits: her wardrobe, her personality, her taste, her love for her husband, and her spending habits.
When you buy a new outfit, you may press a friend for a comment. When the first lady buys a new outfit, she sometimes hopes the press doesn’t comment. Nancy Reagan wrote about this problem in her memoirs:
I appreciate good clothes, but they certainly don’t rule my life. And I think it’s unfair to assume that when a woman dresses well, it means she’s not doing much else. I really did have other interests—although in 1981 that wasn’t yet clear to the press and to most of the public. 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!
In her first few weeks as first lady, Nancy discovered that so many pieces of White House china had broken over the years that she could not host a White House dinner without mixing and matching china patterns. When she accepted a 220-piece china set, valued at two hundred thousand dollars, from a private foundation, she was shocked at the criticism she received. Nancy took more heat for that private gift than any White House oven could ever produce.
Yet, Nancy helped herself and her husband by diffusing the criticism with humor. She rinsed off some mud thrown at her by laughing at herself. At the annual national press dinner called the Gridiron, Nancy dressed in secondhand clothes and rags and sang the 1920s Fanny Brice song, “Secondhand Rose.” The song was a hit for its reworked lines, such as “I’m wearing secondhand clothes, secondhand clothes. They’re quite the style in the spring fashion shows” and “even though they tell me I’m no longer queen, did Ronnie have to buy me that new sewing machine?”
“That song, together with my willingness to sing it, served as a signal to opinion-makers that maybe I wasn’t the terrible, humorless woman they thought I was—regal, distant, disdainful. From that night on, my image began to change in Washington,” Nancy wrote.[i]
Nancy’s life of service and Just Say No
Many hospitals are named for Nancy Reagan because of her work to prevent drug and alcohol abuse among youth, called Just Say No, and her efforts to extend her hand to the elderly and emotionally disabled children. Her work and support for Alzheimer’s research in memory of her husband also continues through the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Center of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Ronald Reagan Deeply Loved Nancy
Perhaps the most touching praise Nancy ever received came in the form of letters from her husband. On Christmas Day in 1981, the first Christmas after the assassination attempt on his life, Reagan wrote a Proverbs 31-like letter to his wife.
“There are several much beloved women in my life and on Christmas I should be giving them gold, precious stones, perfume, furs, and lace. I know that even the best of these would still fall far short of expressing how much these several women mean to me and how empty my life would be without them,” Ronald Reagan wrote.
Among Reagan’s “much beloved women” was the first lady who brought grace and charm to whatever she did, making stuffy events fun. She was also the woman who reached out to “touch an elderly invalid with tenderness and compassion just as she fills my life with warmth and love.” The other women were the gal who was a nest builder and the one who went to the ranch with him and the sentimental lady “whose eyes fill up so easily.” Another was the woman who loved to laugh, even at his stale jokes.
“Fortunately all these women in my life are you—fortunately for me that is, for there could be no life for me without you. Browning asked; ‘How do I love thee—let me count the ways?’ For me there is no way to count. I love the whole gang of you—Mommie, first lady, the sentimental you, the fun you and the peewee power house you,” Reagan concluded, signing his love note with, “Lucky me.”
Lucky us, too. We will miss you, Nancy.
[i] Nancy Reagan, My Turn, 42, 43.