LADY IN RED: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF NANCY REAGAN
By Sheila Tate
Crown, $27, 256 pages
White House watching is a popular sport in the nation’s capital and the focus is usually on the president, but the first lady gets her share of a attention, whether she likes it or not.
In the case of Nancy Reagan she was often criticized for being extravagant — but mostly for being tough. Tangling with the first lady was high risk, as more than one staff member discovered. The most dramatic instance was that of short-lived White House chief of staff Don Regan who not only made no secret of his dislike of the first lady, suggesting she needed a special aide to cope with her continuous telephone calls, but actually hung up on her on one occasion. He was fired as soon as President Reagan heard about it.
There are no published details in this reverential biography by a former aide regarding Mrs. Reagan’s constant calling, but there is a fascinating commentary on her in a foreword by former President George H.W. Bush, now 93 and still a man of great courtesy.
The Reagans and the Bushes were not close socially. It is reported the Reagans did not invite them to a state dinner. Yet former President Bush remains polite in his recollections of Nancy Reagan. He writes, “Nancy Reagan was truly one of he most loyal and protective spouses I have ever met. No matter the issue — Nancy had Reagan’s back. She and I tangled a time or two and she could be a complicated person. But I always knew even when we disagreed that her motives were pure. It was not about her. It was about her beloved Ronnie. And for that she had my utmost respect.”
That foreword was classic George Bush and it was also classic Nancy Reagan.
Ms. Tate, who worked for Mrs. Reagan for four years, is as loyal and full of flattery as might be expected. Yet Mr. Bush’s words boil down to who and what Mr. Reagan’s wife was, and he is to be congratulated on his tact and his shrewdness. Ms. Tate presents the more gilded version of the first lady, emphasizing, as she should, the efforts made in her “Just Say No” drug campaign for the young what seemed to be her genuine fondness for children.
The author acknowledges that there were some problems between Mrs. Reagan and her own children, daughter Patti who was an outspoken liberal, and her son Ron. Yet there are touching episodes indicating that the first lady was not as much of a socialite as she was portrayed, and it is pointed out that the celebrity friends who surrounded the Reagans were a genuine part of their lives in Hollywood. Mr. Reagan was a movie star, if not one of the best known, and she was an actress.
And Ms. Tate emphasizes in words and photographs, that it was the acting background that most likely prompted Mrs. Reagan to put on a hilarious act during the annual dinner held by the Gridiron Club of Washington. During those moments on stage, which she planned herself, the first lady sang “Second Hand Clothes” — a parody off herself and her passion for fashion — and brought the audience to its feet and made her much more popular.
Ms. Tate is also careful in her comments about those celebrity friendships, especially those involving Frank Sinatra, who offered the use of his apartment in Las Vegas to Mrs. Reagan. Ms. Tate notes that it was a beautiful apartment yet adds that Mrs. Reagan was “skeptical” about it. She was even more skeptical when the management of the hotel in which the Sinatra flat was located wanted to move in a personal slot machine for the first lady.
Showing a rare sense of humor, Ms. Tate recalls her reaction to that particular suggestion, “I envisioned the headlines ‘Nancy plays slots in Sinatra’s Las Vegas apartment, and heaven only knows what the writers at the New York Post would create.” Needless to say, there was no slot machine installed for the first lady.
According to Ms. Tate, Mrs. Reagan got along well with other former first ladies, especially Jacqueline Kennedy and Laura Bush and even Barbara Bush, whom she thought of as “a breath of fresh air.” She had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton, who never responded to Mrs. Reagan’s letter welcoming her to the White House.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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