Remembering Nancy Reagan 1921-2016

The Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress remembers the legacy of First Lady Nancy Reagan, her lifetime of public service, and her role not only as the First Lady, but also the closest advisor and confidant to President Ronald Reagan. The late CSPC President and CEO David M. Abshire noted that Mrs. Reagan played a “crucial role in saving the Reagan presidency, and has thereby achieved a special place in the history of first ladies.”

During the darkest days of the Iran-Contra scandal, Abshire was recalled from his post as U.S. Ambassador to NATO to lead the White House investigation into the scandal.  In the following excerpts from his 2005 book, Saving the Reagan Presidency, Dr. Abshire wrote of the unique role that Nancy played in the Reagan White House.

“Nancy Reagan was one of the most powerful first ladies in history.  In this respect she ranked with Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt, but I learned that she was totally different from each.  She was... not only the president's closest adviser and best friend but also the 'indispensable factor in his political life.'  Reagan would most probably never have been president without her.  Time and again, she had been a major factor, sometimes a key factor, in the crises of her husband's political career… She was deeply devoted to her husband to her husband and would do anything to ensure his place in history and in the affection of the American public.

“In times of crisis, Nancy Reagan simply did not believe in standing still… When Nancy was brought in after the [Iran-Contra] scandal had broke, she was key in the turnaround, bringing in outside advisers, protecting the president from foolish moves on premature public appearances, and-looking long term-bringing in a new chief of staff.  Truly, it can be said that Nancy Davis Reagan played a crucial role in saving the Reagan presidency and has thereby achieved a special place in the history of first ladies.

"This closeness [of Ronald and Nancy Reagan] never weakened, ... despite the stresses of political campaigns, despite the demands of the presidency, despite the curse of the Iran-contra affair, and, ultimately, despite Alzheimer's disease.”

While the lessons of history often focus on the President as an individual, it is worth remembering that the White House is often a cast of hundreds, and a select few serve as close advisors, confidants, and supporters for the President.  Nancy Reagan greatly shaped the role of the First Lady, both publicly and behind closed doors, and her legacy will be studied for generations.