Nancy Reagan ‘played the bad guy’ so the president could shine

A new biography portrays Nancy Reagan as tougher and more politically astute than the president, and also deeply committed to his success. 

Simon & Schuster
"The Triumph of Nancy Reagan" by Karen Tumulty, Simon & Schuster, 662 pps.

Ronald Reagan has been credited with the ability to read a room instantly and take control of strategic moments with a disarming anecdote. Through his two terms as governor of California and two terms as president of the United States, Reagan generated speculation about the level of political savvy he hid underneath an exterior of Hollywood charm.

In Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty’s big new book, “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan,” an answer to that speculation emerges: The president’s political savvy wasn’t hiding under his affability – it was sitting right behind him, wearing a thin smile and a crisp red Adolfo suit. 

Even Reagan’s first chief of staff, James Baker III, is quoted as saying, “She had a terrific political antenna, much better than his, in my view.” 

Tumulty seems aware of the uphill battle involved in writing a thoroughly researched and historically responsible biographical reassessment of a controversial figure like the first lady, who in her lifetime was lampooned as a brittle control freak and as a clueless campaigner for “Just Say No,” her program to discourage drug use. That lampooning was codified in Kitty Kelley’s bestselling 1991 book, “Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography.” In this newest book, Tumulty has created the best possible rejoinder: She’s written a masterpiece.

Tumulty is well aware of her subject’s shortcomings. “Her purchase of more than $200,000 worth of White House china created a headache for her husband amid a recession during which the Reagan administration was cutting poverty programs,” Tumulty writes. “She ‘borrowed’ designer clothes and did not give them back.” 

A subtly different version of the administration emerges from Tumulty’s book. At one point, Reagan confided to his future biographer Edmund Morris that the year 1949 had been the lowest of his life: He was unhappily divorced, he had an injured leg and was hobbling around on crutches, and his movie career was dying. “And then along came Nancy Davis,” he tells Morris, “and saved my soul.”

Nancy was born Anne Frances Robbins in 1921 and became Nancy Davis when she was adopted by her mother’s second husband. After a stint acting in Hollywood, she married Ronald Reagan in 1952 and became famously devoted to him. “She had but one preoccupation,” Tumulty writes, “Ronald Reagan’s well-being and success.”

Early in Reagan’s political life, his agent accurately described him as “allergic to interpersonal conflict,” warning that, in any political career, “You’re going to have to fire a lot of people.” It became clear that Reagan, with his easygoing nature, would be a disaster at this kind of thing; that would be his wife’s job. “She was the one that was going to be the bad guy.” 

That was certainly her reputation during Reagan’s time in office. As Tumulty notes, although the first lady seldom set foot in the West Wing, her presence there was palpable. 

In “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan,” that palpable presence is still there. But Tumulty, who interviewed a legion of sources, presents a picture of the first lady as surprisingly earthy, an avid listener, and consistently, stealthily, kind.

“Mrs. Reagan wants it that way” is the unacknowledged theme of the book. Tumulty’s organizing claim is that the first lady was a central player in one of the most pivotal American presidencies of the 20th century, and that case has never been more strongly made. 

All future biographies of her will have to start with this one; it deserves a place on the same shelf with Margery M. Heffron’s “Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams” and Blanche Wiesen Cook’s three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

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