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'First Ladies': Nancy Reagan beyond 'the gaze'

Updated 11:01 PM ET, Sun October 18, 2020

Editor's Note: Kate Andersen Brower is author of "The Residence," "First Women," "Team Of Five" and "First In Line," and consultant on the CNN Original Series "First Ladies." Kate Bennett is a White House Correspondent for CNN. The views expressed here are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - Nancy Reagan needs no introduction. Through history and pop culture, we've come to know her as the quintessential adoring wife and fiercely devoted political partner.

"My job," she said in a 1975 interview, "is being Mrs. Ronald Reagan."

Cue the eye roll. Even then, Nancy sounded old-fashioned. But she never changed her position on the matter. When "60 Minutes" journalist Mike Wallace followed up on that interview in 2002, he asked Nancy if she ever considered herself as a separate person from her husband. "No," she said, "I never do. Always as Nancy Reagan. My life began with Ronnie."

Her devotion was returned. In a letter to Nancy on their 31st wedding anniversary in 1983, a then-President Ronald Reagan wrote, "I more than love you; I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me."

But Nancy's time as the nation's first lady was not always easy. We know she was traumatized by the day her husband was shot in 1981, and that she was lampooned as "Queen Nancy" for being out of touch.

She had a famously difficult relationship with her children (just read the dedication in her no-holds-barred memoir, "My Turn": To Ronnie, who always understood, and to my children, who I hope will understand). After the White House years, we witnessed her courage as she stood by her husband in his battle with Alzheimer's, during what she called "the long goodbye."

But what we don't know quite as well is how absolutely crucial Nancy was to her husband's presidency. In fact, without Nancy Reagan, there wouldn't have been a President Ronald Reagan at all.

Below, join us for a "First Ladies" viewing party as we break down 10 of our favorite moments and key takeaways from this episode.

1. The gaze

Kate Andersen Brower: There is no better example of a president who could not have possibly gotten elected without his wife than Ronald Reagan. They were completely dependent on each other -- she had people fired who she thought were not looking out for his best interests. Everyone knew not to cross her; I don't think any modern first lady loved the job more than Nancy Reagan did.

I also don't think there's another first lady who looked at her husband quite like Nancy did.

Kate Bennett: Honestly, this is the first time I'm seeing it, "the gaze." I think I always got that she was the brains of the operation. She had a shrewdness about her, and I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way. Sometimes it's the most important trait to have in politics.

Brower: Reagan is the first celebrity president. Remind you of anyone?

Bennett: Ha! Yep. I love this old Hollywood footage. What other president has this?! Ronald Reagan really was a big star before he got into politics in the '60s, and I think people tend to forget that.

Brower: I know, it's amazing. Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe??

Bennett: He hobnobbed with the glamorous people; you could tell by who showed up at their first inauguration.

And Nancy Reagan was there in red -- iconic. In the same way Mamie Eisenhower had "Mamie Pink," Nancy owned the color red. It was a way to brand themselves in a purely visual medium. It's pretty genius.

Brower: Reagan red! I personally love it. Which designer was her favorite? Scaasi? Bill Blass?

Bennett: Yes, Scaasi (Isaacs spelled backwards 🤪). And she also wore a lot of James Galanos, Adolfo and Oscar de la Renta.

She wanted Reagan in a stroller suit for the inauguration! I never noticed that before. Such a weird and formal request; it's a men's suit that is most popular at daytime weddings.

Any other president might have pushed back, but I would imagine he listened to her and did what he was told.

Apparently, it was a big deal because the guests were also asked to wear semi-formal daywear to the inauguration, and several Congressmen complained. They had just come out of the quite, ahem, informal Carter years. A wild way to be introduced to the new administration, via stuffy dress code.

2. A lonely childhood

Brower: Oh, her childhood was hard. "Nancy" was actually a nickname; she was born Anne Frances Robbins. Her childhood was so consumed by abandonment.

Nancy's father, who was a car dealer, left the family when she was a baby. Then when Nancy was three, her mother left her to live with relatives in Bethesda, Maryland, so that she could continue her acting career.

Bennett: Bethesda connection!

Brower: Ha. Yes! It's where we both live. I once lived around the corner from the house Nancy grew up in.

Things changed when her mother married a prominent neurosurgeon -- they all moved to Chicago's gold coast when Nancy was about 8 years old. He adopted her and she took his last name. I can't imagine how it must have felt to be without either parent for so long.

Her mother and stepfather had connections in Chicago politics, but Nancy wrote in her memoir that "nothing, nothing prepares you for being First Lady." Her book "My Turn" has to be the best first lady memoir next to Michelle Obama's "Becoming." It's open, honest ... and incredibly vindictive.

3. Queen Nancy

Bennett: This narration about the Reagans moving into the White House: "Nancy is disappointed to find it needs a little work." Haha!

Brower: Seriously, though -- presidential families have lived there since 1800. Nancy was destroyed in the press for redecorating -- it cost nearly $1 million, and that was in 1981 -- but I think history has treated it well. There still haven't been any major renovations to the White House since the Trumans!

Bennett: So interesting that Nancy really plugged into her rich friends network to get the money to fix up the White House.

Smart? Maybe. But not very first lady-like.

Brower: Brilliant, right? Because, unfortunately, so much of politics is about money.

Bennett: Watching this footage of the Reagans when he was running for governor, you can just see the ambition in her eyes. And I'm not sure you can say that about any other first lady. Well, Hillary Clinton too.

Brower: You're right, HRC is a good comparison. Stuart Spencer, a longtime senior Reagan aide, said that "In some ways she wanted to win more than he wanted to win." Classic.

4. Astrology and an assassination attempt

Bennett: I remember I was in 4th grade, at a friends' house, when Ronald Reagan got shot. It's funny how those moments stay with you.

Brower: Right, like Kennedy for earlier generations.

Bennett: "He looked pretty good for a guy who had been shot nearly in the heart" -- wow, Ron Reagan!

Brower: President Reagan was much closer to death than people think. Nancy wanted to spend the night at the hospital to be with him, but his aides didn't want her to because they worried it would let on about how bad the situation really was.

Bennett: I can't imagine how scary that must have been for her. How terrifying.

Brower: And that's how we get to the astrology ...

Bennett: Astrology!!! 💫

Brower: After her husband was nearly killed, close to the beginning of his presidency, she consulted an astrologer to cope. She had a color-coded system: red for days when he shouldn't travel, green for good days, yellow for "iffy." In her memoir she wrote, "What if March 30 [the day Reagan was shot and wounded] was only the beginning? And how was I ever going to live through eight years of this?"

Bennett: Such a bizarre juxtaposition. This clearly smart woman, relying on the counsel of an astrologer she spoke to on the phone. Humans are fascinating. I mean, I think we all know someone who believes in things such as this, and that's cool, but to associate it with Nancy Reagan, first lady of the United States, is wild.

Brower: She was powerless in the White House as her husband became the target of an assassination attempt. In order to keep going, she needed to feel like she had some control over the future.

Bennett: Such a snapshot of her psychological state. And her son Ron's contempt for "the astrology business" is palpable. I'm sorry but that was clearly a very difficult and complex relationship.

5. Style icon

‪Bennett: I don't think Nancy gets enough credit for her style. She really knew how to wear great clothes. And she was forward about lengths and prints and mixing and matching. She could wear a bow -- very en vogue in the '80s -- but without it being super-feminine. She was good at sartorial messaging.

Brower: Agreed. That first inauguration gown!

Bennett: It's one of my all-time favorites; it was by Galanos, a top choice with socialites and Hollywood celebs.

And it was very daring to wear a one-shouldered gown at the time.

Brower: Not unlike Michelle's inauguration gown in 2009, right?

Bennett: Yep, Michelle was the only other one.

I also found it interesting that Nancy pulled her hair back when her short, feathered look was so recognizable. In fact, I don't recall her ever doing something like that again. But that white gown with the sequins and the opera length gloves were really stunning.

Brower: She was beautiful, though people worried that she was too thin.

Bennett: This was the era of the "social x-ray," which came from the great Tom Wolfe book, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," a snapshot of elites in the late 1980s. Wolfe defined them as wealthy women of society who had all the money and privilege and access to the best food and parties and restaurants -- but never ate. That "You can never be too rich or too thin" ethos; all very Hollywood.

It's like when the press found out that Nancy was wearing very expensive gowns that were "loaned" to her -- very standard in the Hollywood world and she likely felt entitled to them, but it was and remains a huge no-no in Washington. People think first ladies get their clothes and accessories for free, or that taxpayers fund them. Neither is true. They have to buy their own clothes.

The only time they can accept a gift like that would be for a "state occasion," such as a State Dinner or Inauguration. But those gowns can't be kept; they must then be donated to the National Archives.

Nancy learned this lesson the hard way, and probably thought no one would ever find out that she was getting loaners and not always returning them. But in politics, everything is fair game! Reporters ripped her apart; first ladies borrowing clothes died with this story.

It is constantly compelling to me the way the media and the country consciously or subconsciously operate in these cycles of building first ladies up, and then tearing them down. Rinse, repeat.

6. 'Just Say No'

Brower: Her relationship with the press started to change when she began working on the "Just Say No" campaign, part of her husband's "War on Drugs" effort in the '80s. It was hugely popular; Michael Jackson even remixed "Beat It" for a "Flintstones" special.

Bennett: I remember I had a "Just Say No!" sticker on my notebook.

Brower: Melania has learned from this right, with opioid addiction as a centerpiece of her Be Best initiative?

Bennett: I was about to say, Melania has very similar messaging on her opioid platform. But Melania has focused more on removing the stigma of addiction and asking for help. Nancy was more, "don't do it in the first place!"

Brower: In the end, that message wasn't a success. Today, the "War on Drugs," and the first lady's campaign specifically, is largely considered an overly simplistic approach that disproportionately targeted people based on race and socioeconomic factors. And hearing a privileged woman like her vilify people who were struggling with addiction was not helpful.

7. Second term drama

Bennett: Look at the briefing room for this birthday surprise! I liked those curtains Reagan's windowpane suit here, very stylish! 👌🏻

Reagan says "I have learned not to argue with her superstitions" when Nancy claims its bad luck to swap a piece of cake. I love these little asides we're hearing. They're so revealing about the relationship.

Brower: This was February 1983, so toward the end of Reagan's first term -- he would have been 72. Ron actually asked his dad not to run again. Interesting.

Nancy didn't want him to run again, either ... but he did, and she supported him. At certain points, she's literally feeding him lines. She had the ability to deftly deflect reporter's questions in a way that he sometimes struggled with. She reminds me of Rosalynn Carter, she had better political instincts than her husband.

Like during the 1984 debates with Walter Mondale. Many say Mondale was way too nice to be president. I've interviewed him, and I think it's true -- but in the first debate, Reagan wasn't on his game.

Nancy was furious at his aides, blaming them for his terrible debate performance. This is when heads start rolling and we see how fiercely protective she is of him. At his next debate, Reagan clearly won. We all need a Nancy Reagan in our lives!

Bennett: Yeah. I mean, I would have been scared of Nancy. 😬

Brower: Ummm, me too. She was fierce.

8. Political power behind the scenes

Bennett: I feel like, in general, first ladies almost always have their eye on their husbands' legacies, far more than they do their own.

Brower: Yes. And the first ladies are usually footnotes in their husband's presidential libraries.

Bennett: Jackie, Hillary, Nancy -- they were all instrumental in creating that legacy component for their husbands.

In so much of this footage, I kind of love that Nancy is the only woman in this boys' club of an administration. She's toasting on the plane!

Brower: I love this anecdote about Nancy suggesting an outdoor walk with Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. The US and the Soviet leader were meeting for the first time since the start of the Cold War, and Nancy knew her husband would be more comfortable with that than a conversation in a boardroom with a bunch of aides. He did best one-on-one, just having a conversation.

Bennett: She was so instrumental in the politics. I had no idea the extent.

Brower: Very HRC. Except she wouldn't have dreamed of having an office in the West Wing.

Bennett: Right. She knew not to steal the spotlight -- but that didn't mean she couldn't pull the strings.

This part about Nancy's distrust of Chief of Staff Don Regan sounds like Melania. If she thinks there is someone who doesn't have her husband's best interest, she tells him.

Brower: Absolutely. Nancy said, "Don Regan's gonna have to go and Ronnie can't fire anybody." Trump doesn't have that problem. 🤣

9. In the bunker

Bennett: That pic of Nancy Reagan when Don hangs up on her.

Brower: That was Regan's fatal mistake. Can you imagine hanging up on Nancy???

Bennett: "She gets the last word." Truer words about a first lady were never said! ✌🏻out, Don Regan.

Ohhh he's the one who leaked the astrologer after he resigned ... that's a decent revenge move. Very "House of Cards."

Brower: Very.

Bennett: "Nancy was the reality therapist," is also a great description of her. It's so true that a first couple are public to the world, but privately they're in the bunker together.

Brower: Absolutely. She was in it with Reagan as his approval ratings dropped with the Iran-contra crisis. I think Americans are eager to forgive, as long as you admit your mistakes. It depends how devastating the mistakes are, of course. Nancy tapped into that -- she was the one who pushed Reagan to apologize.

It was even her idea to get a photo of Reagan greeting Russians during a trip to Moscow. She couldn't stand Gorbachev's wife Raisa, though. I think they were too similar.

Bennett: Yes! They hated each other! It was so monumental, that relationship with Russia. Played masterfully by both leaders, tbh.

10. The long goodbye

Brower: I love her repartee with the White House correspondents, especially Sam Donaldson, as they get ready to end their second term. Even though she felt attacked by the press, she knew many of the reporters who covered the administration by name and could joke with them.

Bennett: Wow, wow, wow. Just thinking of what that last press pool report must have been like. (And what it will be like for this administration, too.)

Awww, Ron Reagan's getting emotional about his dad's Alzheimer's diagnosis.

Brower: Nancy did so much for Alzheimer's research. Even though many Republican leaders disagreed, she pushed for federally funded embryonic stem cell research. This is such a substantive perspective on her time as first lady. We know so much about the Reagans' love story, but this is unique.

Ron's description of his mother is incredible: "I often think of her as a child and frightened. She could be fierce when she wanted to be, but I think there was still a little 3-year-old girl whose mother was going away. People who are frightened and go ahead anyway? That's a certain kind of courage, too." How poignant is that?!

Bennett: The takeaway here about Nancy Reagan is that she was INSTRUMENTAL in the administration. Like, maybe she dabbled a bit in the East Wing/FLOTUS role, but she had to be right by her husband, at all times, whatever shape that took. So fascinating. I learned so much more about her!

Brower: She had so many dimensions. Like every first lady, and, frankly, like every woman.

Bennett: You know what we didn't see, now that I'm thinking about it? Her as a mother. That just wasn't her jam, was it? She wasn't that doting mom kind of person.

Brower: No, she definitely was not a doting mother. And I don't think she would apologize for that. She had a very difficult relationship with her children because she was so devoted to her husband -- they felt she didn't have time for them.

Next up, the incomparable Eleanor Roosevelt!

Bennett: Which makes perfect sense after watching this. Can't wait!!

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