A frank, affectionate meeting with Nancy

In popularity polls these days, Nancy Reagan does even better than her husband. According to an NBC News poll, more than 69 percent of the American people approve of her, making her America's second most favorite First Lady, trailing only Jacqueline Kennedy. But it wasn't always that way. The First Lady: Nancy Reagan (NBC, Monday, June 24, 10-11 p.m.), reported by Chris Wallace, traces her phenomenal rise in the affection of the country, as well as in political power, since 1981. The woman who was once perceived as interested only in designer clothes and expensive dinnerware is now recognized by White House insiders, the news media, and the general public as a serious fighter against youthful drug abuse, a major adviser to her husband, and an indirect political force to be reckoned with by anyone dealing with the Reagan administration.

Under the aegis of executive producer Robert Rogers, Chris Wallace probes mercilessly and doesn't leave a brickbat unexamined as he delves into the life and times of the First Lady. He talks to members of her family, who speak apparently honest words about a woman they love and admire, yet somehow treat gingerly. Those who work for her husband seem to be impressed by her loyalty to him, her demands for perfection, her unerring sense of who is attempting to misuse her husband's position.

Wallace does not gloss over the negatives -- he muses on the public relations aspect of her image and allows feminist Betty Friedan to disdainfully call Nancy Reagan ``an anachronism . . . denying the reality of American women today and what they want to be. . . .'' But he also allows daughter Maureen to defend her stepmother: ``Any feminist who thinks that Nancy Reagan is a bad role model is not a feminist. Feminism is a choice to be what you can be and to do what you can do . . . and to be able to make those choices for yourself.'' The documentary makes it clear that Nancy Reagan has become one of the most powerful of first ladies because of the behind-the-scenes power she wields, seemingly judiciously, on presidential attitudes.

One of the most revealing film clips is an old one, but it is important because it reveals a charming, self-deprecating Nancy Reagan sense of humor. It contains perhaps her most famous quip about herself, one that may have been a turning point in the press attitude toward her because it uncovered a side of her that had seldom surfaced before. ``There's a picture post card of me as queen,'' she said. ``Now that's silly, because I'd never wear a crown . . . it messes up your hair.''

Chris Wallace probes gently into Nancy Reagan's early relationships -- her unhappy childhood, her love for her natural mother as well as for her adoptive mother and father. Several times, Mrs. Reagan verges on tears as she recalls early trauma.

But the sadness in this documentary is balanced with lovely moments of candid husband-wife banter, picturing their solid relationship as seldom seen anywhere else.

``The First Lady'' is not a puff piece, despite the fact that it is almost impossible to view it without emerging from the hour with great affection and admiration for Nancy Reagan and her unique relationship with her husband. It is a sensitive, delightful, sometimes moving character sketch of a ``woman behind the man,'' who is emerging as her own woman.

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