Monday, March 07, 2016

Why Nancy Reagan was the indispensable woman

March 7, 2016
Two tales of Nancy Reagan:
The first took place during Ronald Reagan’s 1966 campaign for governor of California. Dana Rohrabacher, now a member of Congress but then just a college kid, slept one night in the backyard of Reagan’s house in Pacific Palisades. At 7 the next morning, the back door swung open and Nancy Reagan appeared. “What are you doing in my backyard?” she asked.
Dana explained himself. A volunteer with Youth for Reagan, he had organized almost a hundred college students to walk precincts for the candidate — only to have campaign officials decide to disband the group. Dana told Mrs. Reagan he would need only a couple of minutes to explain to Reagan why that was a mistake.
“I know him,” Mrs. Reagan replied. “He won’t spend a couple of minutes with you. He’ll spend 15 or 20. Then he’ll either skip his breakfast or run late all day.” Mrs. Reagan promised to do what she could about Youth for Reagan herself, speaking to the campaign manager. Then she politely but firmly instructed Dana to leave.
Dana rolled up his sleeping bag, walked around to the front of the house and began trudging down the long highway to the street, dejected. Suddenly he heard footsteps. Turning, he saw Ronald
Reagan running down the driveway to catch him. His shirttail was untucked. Shaving cream covered half his face.
“If you can spend the night on my back lawn,” Reagan said, reaching Dana, “I can spend a few minutes talking with you. Now, what’s the problem?”
Youth for Reagan was never disbanded.
Dana told me this story soon after I joined the Reagan speechwriting staff, and at first I supposed the moral was simple. Whereas Nancy could prove difficult and intimidating, Ronald always proved easygoing and charming.
But when I tried looking at the story not from Dana’s point of view but from that of Reagan himself, the story got a little more complicated.
“How long did Reagan spend talking to the two of you in the driveway?” I asked Dana.
“I don’t know. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes?”
“So Mrs. Reagan was right when she said he’d spend a lot of time with you?”
“Sure she was right. She said she knew her husband, and she did.”
Nancy Reagan, I saw, had created a situation in which her husband simply couldn’t lose. If Reagan had let Dana and his friend disappear down the driveway, he would’ve been able to eat his breakfast and remain on time for his meetings. That would’ve been good. In running down the driveway after them instead, Reagan had been able to look like a hero to a couple of kids who would then tell the story to all their friends. That was even better.
And Nancy? She wasn’t going to look very good either way. She was an intelligent woman — she must have known that. She didn’t care. What she cared about was helping her husband.
For four decades, I realized, Nancy had given herself to the president. She had made certain those who worked with him put his interests first, kept him from being overscheduled and attended to 1,000 details from the menus at political dinners to the cover of each year’s White House Christmas card.
Reagan himself just wasn’t temperamentally suited to any of that. Mrs. Reagan was. Who cared if she could be formidable? She took care of him — and then he went out and cut taxes, rebuilt our armed forces and stood up to the Soviet Union.
Which brings me to my second tale.
I was standing just behind the president in the Rose Garden one morning as he delivered remarks I’d drafted — as I recall, his audience was a group of young people, perhaps 4-H’ers or Girl Scouts. Although his performance was fluid enough, his pacing was off. He seemed perfunctory and detached. For once, I thought, Ronald Reagan was having a bad day.
Then a movement on the second floor of the residence caught his eye. He glanced up. Mrs. Reagan was standing at a window. She smiled. The president beamed. She waved. He waved back — then had everyone in the Rose Garden turn around to wave, too. When he returned to his remarks, the president picked up the pace, appearing more involved and energetic. Even — well, younger.
A smile and a wave from Nancy. They were all Ronald Reagan needed.
Now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Peter Robinson served as speechwriter and special assistant to President Reagan. He is the author of “How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life.”

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