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Nancy Reagan was no model of a modern first lady, but she was savvy enough to survive

When Nancy Reagan became first lady in January 1981, she seemed a relic of a past age — at least to me, a young Washington Post Style section reporter covering her every step and every adoring gaze at her husband, Ronald Reagan, during the inaugural festivities that month. Yes, she had had her own acting career — and kept working to support them as her husband's career waned, as my colleague, Elaine Woo, pointed out in her excellent obituary on Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday.

Her devotion to her husband was unquestioned. But as first lady, she seemed to telegraph that she had finally found her role of a lifetime — adoring wife of the president — and she planned to luxuriate in it. She loved classic designer clothes, counted as her best gal pals the ladies-who-lunch wives of industry titans, and spent $200,000 on new china for the White House. For all of it, she was utterly lambasted by press and pundits. In fact, she took such a public beating, I sometimes felt a tad sorry for her.

When the glamorous Princess Grace tragically died in a car crash, we heard that Nancy would be sent to glittery Monaco to represent the White House at the funeral.

"You know she's dying to go," one reporter said tartly to a group of us. There was a pause.

"Poor Nance," another said with a sympathetic chuckle.

So when she made an appearance in a skit at the venerable Gridiron Club's annual dinner, dressed in goofy old clothes and spoofing herself while singing a parody of "Second Hand Rose," I was impressed. I couldn't imagine having made fun of myself no matter how much other people were making fun of me. Of course, it was a clever White House political calculation — and it showed her to be a savvy political operator. Not for the last time.

She would go on to be excoriated for various other moves. The whole "Just Say No" campaign to get kids off drugs that she launched was well-intentioned but eventually mocked.  As Reagan's time in office stretched to a second term, she was demonized for wielding too much power over her husband's staff and him — famously feeding him a line during a press opportunity at the Reagan ranch. And she came in for more criticism when it was discovered she had her own personal astrologer.

Even as Nancy Reagan became more politic, she never quite escaped the image of a first lady as a bit of a class-conscious snob. Jackie Kennedy before her and Michelle Obama after her wore closets of designer clothes — and got worshipped as style icons. Both Bush first ladies were traditional wives and mothers who doted on their husbands but were respected for it. It didn't help that Nancy Reagan was thought of as a distant and diffident mother to her kids — who were grown by the time the Reagans entered the White House. (Wow, she really couldn't catch a break.)

I think, in the end, she was a complicated first lady at a complicated time. No doubt, most, if not all the first ladies after her studied the cautionary tales of her time in the White House.

There's no question that she won respect for her support for her husband as he fell victim to the scourge of Alzheimer's. As far as I'm concerned, her single greatest contribution to the public good was her strong, vocal support for federal funding for stem cell research — which is important to the study of Alzheimer's among other diseases — at a time when President George W. Bush and other conservatives were foolishly opposed to it. For her to lend the voice of an unassailable conservative to the support of stem cell research was remarkable — and perhaps the most important  wielding of her influence ever.

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