By Brett Warnke
I have perfect faith in my husband. But I’m always glad to see him enjoy a pretty girl. And when he stops looking, then I’m going to begin to worry…And he doesn’t have time for outside entertainment. Because I keep him busy.
No, these honest words were not uttered by the recently departed Nancy Davis Reagan. They’re Betty Ford’s.
Mrs. Ford was one of America’s most sincere, independent, and admirable first ladies. At a time of change for women she stood as a proud Republican but one who spoke openly about her own therapy with her psychiatrist when the social stigma of such a practice could easily kill a career in mid-century America. But Mrs. Ford would not be quiet. She favored a woman’s control over her reproductive cycle, acknowledged the new reality of sex before marriage, and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. She danced, laughed loudly, and smiled broadly through interviews about how smoking a joint was just a part of life. She had a rather chivalrous husband who, despite being an athlete and probably the most physically fit President to hold the office, took a tumble to keep his wife upright. (Could you imagine if he had let her tumble instead?)
While the Reagan’s marriage began here in California, all of America should be quite content that the credits are finally finished on Ron and Nancy’s gauzy and mawkish scene. Like her husband, Nancy Davis Reagan attempted to roll back America’s social changes. Whereas “Ronnie” notoriously took down President Carter’s solar panels and turned his crooked administration into a country club for felons, Nancy disagreed with every one of Mrs. Ford’s new views on American women, at least publicly. During her husband’s 1976 bid to snatch the Republican primary nomination from Jerry Ford, Mrs. Reagan contrasted herself with First Lady Ford by discussing the sanctity of marriage (only speaking about her own pro-choice views in 1994). That Nancy was an actress and girl-about-town before she became the pearl-necklaced image of the respectable housewife were, of course, mere details.
Before Nancy spoke to a weepy crowd at the San Diego Republican Convention in 1996 or walked the decks of the USS Ronald Reagan here in 2004, touring the Reagan Room in photo-ops with Paul Wolfowitz, she was raised in Chicago and attended chic private schools. She escaped the Midwest. “I didn’t want to go back to Chicago and live the life of a post-deb,” she said in 1966.
She earned a drama degree from Smith College. Years later, People Magazine called her “a poised patrician-born size 6 who often makes best-dressed lists.” Her mother married up and her adoptive father was a brain surgeon and writer. Nancy later used her theatrical skills from Smith as First Lady when she became famous for, what Washington journalists nicknamed “The Gaze,” that transfixed look of wondrous admiration during Ronnie’s speeches. Regardless of whatever lie, inaccuracy, hokum, balder, dash, or mixed metaphor he decided to read off his ready note cards, Nancy gazed on with a love that was forever May. She was unloved in Reagan’s inner circle. Ed Rollins, a political consultant for Reagan, called her “paranoid, high-strung and neurotic…she could make life miserable for everyone she had to deal with including me.”
“Ronnie” clung to Nancy’s arm after 1949, just as he began ratting on his colleagues and coworkers as an informant for the FBI and became a mouthpiece for General Electric. She spent the 1960s following the dog-whistling Governor Reagan—riding working-class resentment and white reaction—throughout California as he threatened to take Vietnam protesters “by the scruff of the neck,” later ordering people tear-gassed at “People’s Park” in Berkeley. She lamented those years in boring Sacramento, though the 4,700 foot Pacific Palisades property where they lived was listed on the market in 2013 for $4.9 million. Somehow, Nancy endured.
Governor Reagan, in those years, forced the resignations of two aides “accused of being homosexuals,” and Nancy injected herself, tried to kill the story when it hit the California and national press: Ronnie was going to run for President in 1968 (later in 1976 and finally winning in 1980). She set the precedent that she would defend him at all costs.
Everyone knows about the crackpot astrology of her White House years—how Nancy helped plan her husband’s activities with the babblings from the beyond. What’s lesser known was how, according to her daughter Patti, in California, Nancy abused tranquilizers and slapped around the kids. Ronnie’s former employer, General Electric, installed an intercom system in their home so Nancy could listen in on her children. She also accepted gifts as first lady of California: dresses and jewelry from wealthy friends and luxury designers. When the clothing gifts set a precedent for honest graft, she accepted even more in Washington. They were loans, she huffed. She claimed she’d donate the $1 million of free wardrobe to museums after her husband’s term so that future generations could ogle the pantsuits she failed to list on financial disclosure forms.
The clothing loans were permissible; everyone knew she was a clotheshorse and a materialist. But was the opulent dinnerware she accepted really “donations”? No matter. Nancy took it upon herself to lavishly redecorate the White House in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, a time during which her husband actually cut benefits for the poor. But such policy details were irrelevant to wholesome Nancy. She had to be comfortable.
In 1972, in an article titled “Only the Best” Nancy was called “the epitome of Mrs. Clean.” She laughed off her own acting career. “A woman’s real fulfillment is through her man,” she said. Nancy hated the outdoors—being moored on Ronnie’s lonely ranch. Watching steer mate may have been good enough for Ronnie, but Nancy did her best to get him to Washington. Though, she spent much of her time in the White House irritating Ronnie’s staff (which was famously shuffled because of her influence), or harassing the help. “She’s very hard to deal with. I can TELL you,” said one woman in the service industry. “But in the end, she always gets what she wants.”
The great Texan liberal Molly Ivins wrote about Nancy as the “power-behind-the-throne, as the stronger, more manipulative partner…who supposedly made Reagan into a right-winger to begin with.” The clutch of Californians the Reagans brought to Washington said Nancy only dealt with people, never policy in the White House. The Reagans may have blocked out their children but they gushed over dictators, feeling personally connected to the murdering and corrupt Marcos family installed in the Philippines. They even backed the kleptocrats until finally betraying them during the People Power revolution.
In domestic politics, the Reagan’s kept company with kooks, frauds, and reactionaries of every kidney. (Can you believe a ratbag like the disgraced Edwin Meese was actually appointed Attorney General in those years?) But these alliances could be blamed on the politics of the moment or convenience or even coalition building.
But personally, Nancy was cruel.
In 1985, even after 5,500 people had died of AIDS and her husband’s administration had recommended a $10 million cut in AIDS spending, Rock Hudson, Ronnie’s Hollywood pal, was seeking treatment in Paris. Hudson sent a telegram pleading with his Hollywood friends for help. Only one hospital could perform the medical treatment to save Hudson’s life and in contacting the Reagans, he was desperate. Upon receiving the life or death telegram, one that only came to light in 2015, The First Lady, true to form, JUST SAID NO. She turned down his request. Hudson returned home and died a few months later. “AIDS” was not even uttered by Nancy’s husband until two years after their friend’s death.
A few years later in 1989, succumbing to the NIMBY protestations of the elites she chose to live beside, Nancy nixed plans for a 210-bed Phoenix House drug facility. The Bel-Air fat cats didn’t want the druggie riffraff near their neighborhood and consequently, the “Nancy Reagan Center for Drug Rehabilitation” was never built.
“We have had a pleasant life,” was what she said of her marriage in 1966. Not much changed in subsequent years. On one of Larry King’s many interviews she said, “I’ve had a pretty fabulous life.” Indeed. Sentimental conservatives and the slobbering media will want to mourn the loss of a great Washington wife in the days ahead. Have them read a Betty Ford obituary from 2011. In there they can see the independence and integrity of a conservative woman. Regarding Nancy Reagan, America just needs to wave a quick and welcome farewell.
Brett Warnke is a fiction writer and freelancer who lives in San Diego. He lives in North Park and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org