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Reagan Official Deaver Reveals the Real Nancy Reagan

Wednesday, 18 February 2004 12:00 AM

A former member of every Reagan administration, Deaver began his relationship with the family back when Ronald Reagan was first elected governor of California.

Assigned as the contact for the state’s new first lady in her husband’s office, many of the staff warned Deaver about the dangers of dealing with the “Tiger Lady.” But after his first experience having to “just say no” to Mrs. Reagan over a scheduling conflict, Deaver learned something surprising about how to get along with Nancy.

“I didn’t try to impress her,” writes Deaver. “I had just given her the facts and was myself. Maybe the secret in dealing with Nancy Reagan wasn’t to tiptoe past her or try to steamroll over her – impossible in any event. Maybe, I realized, the secret was to employ a radical, ground-breaking tactic. Treat her like a human being, and most important, tell the truth.”

Thus began a long professional and personal relationship that continues to this day.

As Deaver reveals, Nancy Reagan’s life has been filled with one irony after another, beginning with the early years of her career as an actress. Labeled as a communist in the McCarthy-led hunts of the 1940s, she was urged to seek help from the head of the Screen Actors Guild. A guy named Ronald “One-Take” Reagan, as he was known for getting a scene right the first time.

Seeking out Reagan with more intent for a date than for his help, little did Nancy know the actor would one day be so instrumental in the fight against communism he would be widely credited with its fall.

“It’s laughable now,” writes Deaver. “The wife of the president who did more than anyone else to tear down the Iron Curtain – branded as a fellow traveler – identified as a Red Sympathizer.”

But while Nancy has often been accused of being the driving force behind her husband’s entrance into the political fray, in reality it was Reagan whose long-held ambition was to run for the presidency of the United States. Nancy, though supportive, was reluctant. Aside from placing enormous value on their privacy, she worried about her husband and urged him to re-consider his leaps into every candidacy.

“All those people who for years wrote that it was really Nancy pushing Reagan toward politics were plain wrong. Nancy wasn’t her husband’s puppet-master. To the contrary she raised serious questions each time he entertained a run for political office and then in the end did whatever was necessary to help him. He’s the one who lived and breathed the subject. She went along as and when she felt she had to,” reveals Deaver.

The Tiger Lady was more like a lioness when it came to the Reagan family. When she discovered that the official state residence governor’s “mansion” was in reality a fire trap – featuring cracked plaster, chipped paint and pipes in disrepair - and that the special fire escape that came with the house was a rope in an upstairs bedroom closet, Nancy promptly moved the her family out. And she stood her ground when the media began attacking with accusations that the Reagans thought they were too good for the Governor’s Mansion.

The same scenario would repeat itself years later when President and Mrs. Reagan moved into a White House in a similar state of shambles.

Though federal funds could have rightfully been used, Nancy sought private funds to restore the first residence. But the media had a field day in a deja vu deluge of criticism.

“The dirty little secret,” writes Deaver, is that White House items frequently need to be replaced because guests - even heads of state – attending events such as state dinners like to snag a piece of the china as a souvenir.

The Reagans had to scrounge together mismatched pieces from different presidencies to come up with enough place settings for state dinners. When Nancy commissioned the American company Lenox to design a new set, a private foundation anonymously donated more than $200,000 worth of new table settings.

Years later at a summit meeting, Hillary Clinton made a beeline to Nancy, “Mrs. Reagan, I just want to tell you how grateful I am that you bought that set of china. I use it all the time.” Hillary then turned to one of her aides and said, “Make a note: invite Mrs. Reagan to the White House.” The invitation never came.

“If Jackie Kennedy had been doing this in 1981, she would have been praised as a pioneer in historic preservation,” Deaver says.

But Nancy was vilified for many things for which Jackie Kennedy was admired and praised.

“When you compare her to Jackie Kennedy, she was criticized because she had rich friends and beautiful clothes,” Deaver tells NewsMax. “And Jackie Kennedy was praised for those things. I think it was a different time and their husbands’ policies were totally different. Reagan came into an economic mess, and he had to take tough measures to get the economy moving again. And people looked at her and criticized her for that lifestyle.”

While Ronald Regan became the “Teflon president,” writes Deaver, Nancy was more like the “flypaper first lady.”

With the worst poll numbers of any first lady - with the possible exception, says Deaver, of Hillary Clinton - Nancy was dubbed by the media as Queen Nancy, Fancy Nancy, the Marzipan Wife, Iron lady, Ice Lady, Nasty Nancy, and Dragon Lady. All of which, says Deaver stemmed from an early scathing in the Saturday Evening Post in 1968 snidely titled “Pretty Nancy,” which criticized her for being a traditional wife and mother.

The Media portrayed her as calculating, but had Nancy actually been calculating she could have developed a strategy for dealing with their constant attacks, says Deaver.

Though Reagan had a thicker skin, Nancy focused on the causes that moved her while she adjusted to the onslaught of public criticism.

One of her favorites was helping Vietnam veterans, particularly POWs, and the Reagans wore bracelets inscribed with soldiers’ names. One of those was John McCain, who remains a close friend.

When Reagan became president, Deaver says Nancy took everyone by surprise when she took up her fight against drug abuse, rather than a more matronly cause.

“Just as the wounded Vietnam War vets had stirred her to action in California a decade and a half earlier, so she was driven on by these men and women wounded by heroin, cocaine, and the rest of the drug dealer’s arsenal of poisons. Nancy saw drug use as a pox that crossed all lines – geographical, racial, political and economical.”

Deaver remembers one night when a call from a woman in Texas came into the White House switchboard while the Reagans were having a rare quiet dinner.

“Rarely, if ever, does an unsolicited call to the White House get through to a president or a first lady, especially when they have retired to the residence, but the receptionist said that the woman from Texas was in a panic. Unable to resist such a direct plea for help, Nancy took the call,” writes Deaver.

Desperate to help her drug-addicted son and not knowing where else to turn, the woman had called the First Lady as a last resort. Nancy listened patiently and then promptly called the head of the Texas chapter of Just Say No, who said he would contact the woman first thing the next morning. But Nancy was adamant, “This has to happen tonight. I really don’t think there is a tomorrow for these people. This lady is not going to spend another night going through this hell.”

A year later, the son’s treatment program appeared to have been a complete success.

In eight years, Nancy took her crusade to 65 cities in 33 states, and even then she didn’t stop until she had to turn most of her attention to her ailing husband.

Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was laughed at and ridiculed. But Joseph Califano, Jr., the secretary of health, education and welfare under President Jimmy Carter and now the president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, said, “Without question she made a difference; just look at the numbers before she started and the numbers after.”

Critics called the campaign simple-minded, but the simplicity was the genius of it, says Califano. “Nothing’s worked as well since.”

Still, the vilification of the Reagans continues today – as evidenced by the recent uproar over “The Reagans,” pulled by CBS -- even though history has vindicated Ronald Reagan over and over again. But Nancy just keeps on focusing on the tasks at hand. Deaver tells NewsMax she didn’t even discuss the show with him.

“I doubt if she watched it. I don’t know that. It was one of those things she didn’t need at the time, a total distortion of their relationship. The impression that he was an amiable dunce with her as the puppeteer isn’t true, and those who wrote and produced it admitted publicly they didn’t agree with Reagan.”

Reagan didn’t have the heart to fire people most of the time, so it often fell to Nancy, says Deaver. “She’s intimidating because she doesn’t like to waste anyone’s time. She’s quick, to the point, and direct.”

But it was always “Ronnie” who wore the political and philosophical pants.

Writer, director, and producer John Huston, “a full-blooded liberal,” knew Nancy well during her single days in Hollywood. He once told a reporter, “The idea that Nancy is an arch conservative and reactionary and that she is the influence on Reagan and guided his political thinking is absurd, absolute nonsense.”

Though Deaver says, “I’ve always thought it odd that the Hollywood community has never recognized the only president of the United States who was a member of their union, who achieved the highest office in the land. I think they disagree with him so badly they can’t get past it and it would actually be good for the Hollywood community to recognize Ronald Reagan from a public relations standpoint.”

But Nancy doesn’t give a second thought to the Hollywood community she was once such a part of, says Deaver. Her thoughts are always at Reagan’s side.

Sometimes, Nancy told Deaver, “I find myself starting to say, “Do you remember...” then I have to stop myself.”


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A former member of every Reagan administration, Deaver began his relationship with the family back when Ronald Reagan was first elected governor of California. Assigned as the contact for the state's new first lady in her husband's office, many of the staff warned Deaver...
Wednesday, 18 February 2004 12:00 AM
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