In the shad­ows, but a pow­er­ful force

Chicago Sun-Times - - VOICES - Owen Ull­mann Ull­mann is USA TO­DAY’s editor for world news.

In the first years of Ron­ald Rea­gan’s pres­i­dency, his wife, Nancy, was widely con­sid­ered a li­a­bil­ity.

Af­ter all, she spent lav­ishly on re­dec­o­rat­ing the White House and host­ing glit­ter­ing par­ties at a time when the coun­try was strug­gling through a re­ces­sion marked by both high in­fla­tion and un­em­ploy­ment.

At the time, I was a reporter cov­er­ing the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion for the As­so­ci­ated Press and later Knight- Rid­der News­pa­pers. And, I ad­mit, I was among the jour­nal­ists who wrote many crit­i­cal sto­ries about the first lady: Her de­voted gaze when she looked at the pres­i­dent.

Her fierce pro­tec­tion of his im­age and zero tol­er­ance for aides who ex­hib­ited the slight­est dis­loy­alty. Her love of high fash­ion and glam­our at a time of eco­nomic dis­tress. Her hir­ing of an as­trologer in the wake of her hus­band’s near- fa­tal shoot­ing to make sure fu­ture pub­lic events were safe for him.

Yet, in the later years that I cov­ered the White House, I came to ap­pre­ci­ate the enor­mous in­flu­ence Nancy Rea­gan had on her hus­band’s do­mes­tic and for­eign poli­cies to en­sure a suc­cess­ful pres­i­dency. She was his only close con­fi­dant and friend, and his No. 1 ad­viser. In ret­ro­spect, Imust say she served him— and the coun­try— very well.

While Rea­gan gave sharply worded speeches that em­bel­lished his con­ser­va­tive views on small govern­ment and his an­tipa­thy to­ward the Soviet Union, Nancy Rea­gan soft­ened her hus­band’s sharp edges to pro­duce a prag­matic pres­i­dent who could cut deals with the political op­po­si­tion in Congress and Soviet lead­ers he had as­sailed.

Such bi­par­ti­san agree­ments that ad­vance the pub­lic’s agenda are all but non- ex­is­tent in Wash­ing­ton to­day.

On do­mes­tic pol­icy, Nancy Rea­gan en­cour­aged com­pro­mises on bud­get poli­cies to pre­serve some pro­grams for the

Nancy Rea­gan was vi­tal to Ron­ald Rea­gan’s suc­cess. And the coun­try is bet­ter off for it.

poor in re­turn for cuts in other pro­grams that did not tar­get those most in need.

Al­though the pres­i­dent gave rhetor­i­cal sup­port to the anti- abor­tion move­ment, Nancy re­strained him from tak­ing ac­tions that would fur­ther re­strict a woman’s right to an abor­tion, keep­ing him in line with the ma­jor­ity sen­ti­ment in the na­tion.

At a time when so­ci­ety was largely ho­mo­pho­bic and dis­crim­i­na­tion against gays was the rule, Nancy preached tol­er­ance to­ward peo­ple of all sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions. She of­ten in­vited gay friends from Hol­ly­wood to the White­House and even en­cour­aged the ap­point­ment of gays — who re­mained in the closet— to ad­min­is­tra­tion jobs.

On for­eign pol­icy, Nancy prod­ded her hus­band to reach out to the Sovi­ets to ne­go­ti­ate arms con­trol treaties.

He re­fused to en­gage any Soviet lead­ers dur­ing his first term, say­ing they kept dy­ing on him. He fi­nally did so in his se­cond term, es­tab­lish­ing a strong re­la­tion­ship with then- Soviet Pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev.

They met four times — in Geneva; Reyk­javik, Ice­land; Wash­ing­ton and Moscow. ( I cov­ered all four sum­mits.)

Their meet­ings led to sev­eral arms lim­i­ta­tion deals, a re­mark­able friend­ship be­tween a life­time anti- com­mu­nist and life­long com­mu­nist, and the even­tual end of the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union.

Nancy never up­staged her hus­band or took credit for th­ese ac­com­plish­ments.

She al­ways stood in his shadow, en­cour­ag­ing him, whis­per­ing re­sponses to re­porters’ ques­tions when he couldn’t think of one, even reschedul­ing the cer­e­mony for sign­ing one nu­clear treaty on the ad­vice of her as­trologer.

I was watch­ing a new episode of House of Cards the other night and thought of the Rea­gans when first lady Claire Un­der­wood told her hus­band, Frank, dur­ing a vi­cious fight that they were a team and only suc­ceeded when they worked to­gether, not when they kept un­der­cut­ting one an­other.

That was true of the Rea­gans: They made a great team, with­out the schem­ing and fight­ing. They adored one an­other and had a close- knit re­la­tion­ship un­like any I’ve wit­nessed in Wash­ing­ton.

Nancy Rea­gan was vi­tal to Ron­ald Rea­gan’s suc­cess. And the coun­try is bet­ter off for it.


The Rea­gans share an em­brace at a lun­cheon in New Or­leans on Aug. 15, 1988.

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