The Power of the First Lady

And behind her rightful insistence on we lay a more painful bargain. Lyndon Johnson belonged to a generation of men who regarded sex as a perk of power. Like any number of female Kennedys, like Coretta Scott King, like the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and like others then (and since), Lady Bird suffered the humiliation of her husband’s flagrant infidelity. Sweig posits that she coped with the insecurity by making herself “increasingly indispensable.” LBJ struggled with depression—Lady Bird called it the “Valley of the Black Pig,” quoting Yeats—and more so as the Vietnam War took an immense psychological toll. She shored up his self-doubt and rallied his spirits—and her own. (Who else was going to take care of her? So she swam laps and hiked.) She listened, and she empathized with his agonized decisions. She shared his belief in American exceptionalism and defended his policies, digging in as protesters challenged the escalation of the war.

For Nancy Reagan, we meant a combative us-against-them partnership that betrayed a different kind of insecurity, Tumulty’s biography suggests. Nancy’s mother, Edie Davis, was a stage actor whose glamorous social life included Spencer Tracy and Mary Martin. Worldly and colorful, even late in life, Edie was not above using a word like cocksucker (in this case, to describe Barry Goldwater). She and Nancy’s feckless biological father had effectively separated before their daughter was born; in early girlhood, Nancy was lodged with an aunt and uncle while her mother sought gigs. Nancy longed for a more conventional home life. “I always wanted someone to take care of me, someone I could take care of,” she said, a yearning fulfilled when she met Ronnie, in 1949. “I had a career when I got married and very gladly gave it up,” she later explained, referring to her own brief foray into acting. “I think a woman’s real happiness and fulfillment is found in her home.”

But Nancy had no appetite for cozy calm in the White House. Unlike her conflict-averse husband, she played the ruthless enforcer, conducting feuds and engineering firings. Her motivation was not to expand her own portfolio: She wanted only to promote her husband’s “well-being and success,” ferociously tending him and his image. Tumulty calls theirs an “epic love” story, an observation confirmed by the eyewitness accounts of many. But one might also diagnose a codependent partnership between two people who felt abandoned in childhood—Reagan’s father was an alcoholic—and formed a profoundly anxious attachment. They hated to spend nights apart, and famously (or infamously) called each other Mommie and Daddy. Ronnie affirmed her through flirtatious quips and love letters; her love language was acts of service, chief among them the act of protection.

photo of Nancy and Ronald Reagan
Nancy Reagan on the stump with her husband days before the November 1980 election (Bettmann / Getty)

For all her devotion (including, or especially, when he developed Alzheimer’s disease), Nancy emerges in the biography as a disruptive force, to put it mildly, in the political life they shared, particularly on staffing matters. She was quick to suspect that aides might be serving their own interests before his—and she wasn’t always wrong. When she called his campaign office early on, one operator said, “The bitch is on the phone again.” In the margins of my copy, I began tracking all the people she set herself against. “She doesn’t really like dealing with women,” White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver noted, in an understatement. My marginalia included “NR v Helene von Damm” (Reagan’s secretary in California, who rose to become a diplomat and considered Nancy a “schemer”), “NR v Betty Ford,” “NR v Barbara Bush,” “NR v Raisa Gorbachev” (“an instant loathing”), “NR v Barbara Sinatra.” Then again, she didn’t really like dealing with many men: “NR v Ed Meese,” “NR v William Clark,” “NR v James Watt,” “NR v Al Haig,” “NR v Pat Buchanan.” At varying times, she clashed with Ronnie’s children from his first marriage—Michael and Maureen—and with theirs, Patti and Ron. (“You had to be wary of her,” Ron said.) Some staffers, like James Baker, understood her influence and made a point of getting along. Deaver did, too—as deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office, he had been tasked with what his colleagues called the “Mommy Watch,” charged with keeping her away from others.

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