A friend, when she heard I was listening to a biography of Nancy Reagan, didn’t initially understand why I’d bother. Having read Joan Didion’s 1968 profile “Pretty Nancy,” she assumed Reagan fit that portrait of her as a mere decorative element in a couple who were all show and no substance.
In his 2016 eulogy, Nancy’s son Ron predicted that the former First Lady would keep her eagle ears open even beyond the grave. If he was correct, Nancy surely fumed to hear that even in the mind of someone too young to have any memory of her White House years, she was still being defined by that piece that so pained her back when she was merely First Lady of California.
Of course, as biographer Karen Tumulty chronicles, by the end of her husband’s presidency, public perceptions of Nancy had swung to the opposite extreme. It was well-established that she’d been a guiding hand steering the administration’s ship through the choppy waters of Iran-Contra, and she began to be cast as a shadow power making key decisions for her aging husband. Though Nancy was 66 when she left the White House, she was ten years the junior of the man Tumulty follows Nancy’s lead and calls “Ronnie.”
Nancy had a rocky relationship with Edmund Morris, Ronnie’s authorized biographer and one of many who came away stymied in attempts to discern the essential nature of the 40th President of the United States of America. His own children have described the seemingly impenetrable private reserve Ronnie kept behind his amiable, earnest demeanor; even Nancy knew there was a part of her husband she could not reach, but the bond they shared was extraordinarily powerful.
Morris ended up opting for a creative nonfiction approach in Dutch, despairing at trying to capture Ronnie in conventional biography form. Tumulty’s Triumph of Nancy Reagan, a compelling and surprisingly moving book, suggests that perhaps the best way to tell the story of the Reagan years is not through Ronnie’s eyes, but Nancy’s.
Nancy’s essential nature, far less elusive than Ronnie’s, was there from the beginning: an appealing (often flirtatious) nature combined with an attractive face that helped make her one of the most popular girls in school. She was a natural leader, but despite her successes, she had a persistent anxiety that Tumulty suggests may be due to a period of her childhood that Nancy was reluctant to acknowledge: years spent in the care of relatives while her single mother, actor Edith Luckett, traipsed stages across the country. Nancy Robbins would ultimately become Nancy Davis when adopted by her beloved stepfather, Chicago physician Loyal Davis.
The story of how Nancy met Ronnie has been told many times, with details that vary, but Tumulty points out that their literal Hollywood romance required a measure of persistence on Nancy’s part. She was a not-so-young ingenue of modest success (her mother pulled a certain number of strings to land roles for Nancy), and Ronnie was an even-less-young movie star who was nationally known for his film roles but would truly become a household name only after marrying Nancy, when he landed in America’s living rooms as host of General Electric Theater.
Family life for the Reagans, who landed in California’s gubernatorial mansion in 1967 (and infamously left it, quickly, for a more comfortable private home), was far from the picture-perfect facade paraded before the public. Though the First Couple’s love was very real, that intense bond didn’t necessarily make it easier for them to co-parent their two children; even less so the two kids Ronnie had from his first marriage, to fellow star Jane Seymour. Even Nancy, who hated to parade dirty laundry, was ultimately forced to acknowledge that there were real and persistent conflicts between the Reagans and their children, whose own high-profile careers were bumpy at best.
Tumulty’s multilayered account of Nancy’s White House years stands in vivid contrast to the reductive portraits painted by her critics and supporters alike. While Nancy made clear that she had no aspirations to a formal role in policymaking (I’d like to have read more about whatever interactions she eventually had with Hilary Clinton), she was an acute reader of the political winds and knew better than anyone, including Ronnie himself, how to position the Reagan presidency for success.
Ronnie was a gifted politician, but also one with potentially fatal weaknesses; he very nearly faced impeachment over Iran-Contra. While the book’s eponymous triumph is personal — by the end of her life, Nancy was a widely admired person and one much better-understood than she’d been in 1981 — it’s also political, as Reagan’s legacy might have been far different if he’d not had the benefit of Nancy’s deft guidance and unstinting support.
In addition to questions of his political fate, Ronnie also faced a threat that was, potentially, literally fatal when he was struck by an assassin’s bullet in 1981. After that incident, which very nearly claimed his life, Nancy’s longstanding concern for her husband’s safety was doubled and redoubled. Donald Regan, the chief of staff who was poorly handling the Iran-Contra scandal when Nancy helped engineer his ouster, took his revenge with a 1988 memoir in which he wrote that “virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made” was coordinated with astrologer Joan Quigley.
Though Nancy and Ronnie were both more credulous regarding astrology than they cared to admit, Tumulty argues that both Regan and Quigley herself vastly exaggerated the scope of the star-reader’s influence. Her primary impact was on Ronnie’s schedule, with Quigley advising Nancy, about astrologically favorable dates and times for the President to make his moves. (Tumulty nails the dark irony of this risky approach, which supplied an outsider having no official security clearance with an intimate and continuously updated knowledge of the most specific details of the President’s schedule.) Nancy seems to have understood the practice as a crutch that gave her the illusion of control in a situation where even the best-guarded man on Earth could be felled by a madman’s bullet.
Certain key facts about Ronnie’s administration remain frustratingly unknowable; Tumulty understandably succumbs to the temptation to turn every stone to discover precisely what the President knew about the Iran-Contra transactions and when his incipient Alzheimer’s began to seriously impair his judgment. Her book is consistently enlightening, but some of that space might have been taken for more timely concerns like the Reagans’ views on race. Oddly, the author spends more time considering Edith Luckett’s racial attitudes than those of Ronnie, whose policies were so harmful to BIPOC communities and whose personal failings included the appallingly racist tropes he used in a recently-unearthed 1971 conversation with Richard Nixon.
By contrast, Tumulty is forthright in accounting Ronnie’s shameful neglect of the growing AIDS crisis. While she credits Nancy with a decisive role in finally forcing her husband to reckon with the disease, the biographer acknowledges that her subject characteristically helped Ronnie cover for his sins of omission both during his White House years and after. When Ronnie, with Nancy’s prompting, later said his administration did everything in its power to fight AIDS, Tumulty directly identifies the statement as an egregious falsehood.
The Triumph of Nancy Reagan is a confident, assured, readable (or, as the case may be, listenable) chronicle of a pivotal presidency as seen from the perspective of one of the most influential First Ladies in American history. The aptly-named audiobook narrator Kate Reading brings a gratifyingly dry sensibility to the proceedings, telling the story like your favorite no-nonsense aunt — and dipping into some priceless impressions, none better than Nancy herself. “Just say…no!”