Two days ago in New York City I was attending a meeting of United Nations officials. Noting the passing of Nancy Reagan, one of them asked me where in the U.S. Constitution the position of First Lady was legally defined.
It’s not; there is no Constitutional office of First Lady. The First Lady of the United States is neither elected nor appointed, and can’t be impeached or fired. It’s only through tradition (think of Dolley Madison) that the spouse of an elected president becomes First Lady of our nation. What she does or does not do is entirely up to her.
She then asked me about Nancy Reagan, an elegant and gracious lady I was privileged to know well, having served her husband for many years.
A more apt title for her might be Chief Cheerleader. Everything she did as First Lady was for her beloved Ronnie – no one could match her caring devotion or her constantly supporting watchcare or her unbridled love for her husband. Theirs is a love story for the ages.
I first met Nancy Reagan on a sunny morning at their California ranch, where she and her husband had been rowboating on their private pond. I had just joined Ronald Reagan’s traveling campaign staff. She and I exchanged pleasantries, and then with a sudden seriousness she said, “Take good care of Ronnie.” It wasn’t a political charge, but a caring expression of a loving companion – for she was quite mad about her Ronnie. Then she mounted her horse and off she went riding with her husband.
If one wanted an example of a couple totally in love, one needs look no further than Ronald and Nancy Reagan. They were first and foremost, every day, a couple deeply devoted to each other.
When the President would be away from her, even for a couple of days, he was different. He missed her presence! At night he would wish he were home at the White House, with her. When she was with him, there was an extra sparkle in his eyes, more bounce in his step, a brighter light in his countenance. Quite simply, when she was present he was a better, happier man.
Though always a very private person, shy in her own way, her life was long years as a political wife, thrust into a world limelight she never sought nor relished. Her self-defined role in their public years was to do everything to lift her husband, his presidency, and his legacy. It was, she felt, her obligation and duty to America.
She was always pleasant, and always impeccably attired to represent America, something she took very seriously as First Lady. This was born of a sincere obligation she felt to the American people she with her husband represented to the world.
She demanded excellence, dignity, and propriety of her husband’s staff – not to please him but to help him be his best at serving the nation and achieving his vision for America. If she thought a staff member was poorly serving her husband, they were soon gone. The media often labeled her tough; I’d say she was strong.
There was a fun side to Nancy few Americans saw, like when at every takeoff on the campaign plane from her front row seat she’d roll an orange down the aisle. If it made it all the way to the back galley, cheers and applause would burst forth from staff, media, and Secret Service agents, but no one laughing harder than Nancy. This happy ritual ended when their aircraft became Air Force One, not because Nancy wasn’t into fun but because there simply was no center aisle.
She changed the day the President nearly died of a crazed assassin’s bullets. From that moment forward, her protective instincts heightened; she became the Worrier-in-Chief. His wellbeing was paramount in her thoughts and actions. She was all about keeping her gregarious Ronnie safe in an increasingly dangerous world.
In President Reagan’s twilight years, as his mental health deteriorated Nancy became an even more private person. Her life, so long lived on a very public stage, was devoted to her Ronnie. The last time I spoke to the two of them together, with her typical protective sensitivity she turned to the President and said, “Ronnie, you know Steve.”
Once when President Reagan was departing for a Summit Meeting in Europe, with Nancy at his side, there was an early morning departure ceremony on the White House South Lawn. Amidst a large crowd our youngest daughter was invited to present a bouquet of spring flowers to the First Lady. Realizing this bashful eight-year old girl was more than a little nervous, Nancy kindly leaned down to look Allyson in the eyes and to make her at ease. Two happy girls chatting – this was the real Nancy.
Stephen M. Studdert served as a White House Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He lives in Utah.