Inside Nancy Reagan’s White House : Former First Lady Shares Anecdotes at Blue Ribbon Lunch

Times Staff Writer

You imagine life in the White House has its ups and downs. But what was the bane of former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s existence?

“Seating State Department dinners are the bane of everyone’s existence,” she said Wednesday during an informal question-and-answer session, followed by a luncheon sponsored by the Blue Ribbon of the Music Center.

Topic of Discussion

While she planned the flowers and the entertainment, the guest lists for such dinners, she said, were set by “a combination of a lot of people’s input: the political department, the press, the State Department. I have a few says in there, but I think people usually think I have the whole say. Not true, not true.”


Mrs. Reagan was speaking about “Inside the White House,” the topic of the discussion. Although she has appeared at other events since she and former President Ronald Reagan moved back to Los Angeles, this is the first time she has spoken here about life in the White House.

According to Music Center sources, she did not receive the $30,000 fee that was recently reported to be the charge for her speaking engagements, but she was made an honorary board member of the Blue Ribbon.

The Reagans’ rustic weekends at Camp David, adjusting to life outside of Washington and other inquiries about domesticity were among the questions asked by about 350 members of the Music Center support group that had gathered at the Mark Taper Forum in the morning.

And while she handled the personal inquiries smoothly, Mrs. Reagan was thrown by the last question: What characteristics do you most admire in your husband?

“Just a minute!” boomed a voice off stage, and out strode Ronald Reagan, totally surprising his wife and bringing the audience to its feet.

“There are some things I don’t tell you,” he teased, as Nancy greeted him with a kiss.

“I just want to thank you for recognizing Nancy,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone who’s more deserving of it. Being married to Nancy is like a dream come true, my adolescent boy’s dream of what marriage should really be like. As a matter of fact, I have to tell you she just goes into the next room and I find myself missing her.”


That last sentimental anecdote drew a chorus of “Awwwwwws” and a round of applause.

Honest and Steadfastness

And what does she admire about her husband?

“His ability to surprise me,” she said. “Seriously, I admire his integrity, his courage, his honesty, his steadfastness. I admire everything he did during the eight years, and before. And I’m glad he misses me when I’m in the next room.”

Sitting on stage, with the set of the Taper’s “Dutch Landscape” as a backdrop, Reagan was joined by Blue Ribbon president Joanne Kozberg, former Blue Ribbon president Nancy Livingston and event chairman Marion Jorgensen.

Mrs. Reagan, wearing a teal-and-black checked jacket and black skirt, was stuck in freeway traffic and arrived half an hour late. But her peers, who have been welcoming her back into the fold at other events, didn’t seem to mind.

A Close Call

She asked what it was like to be in Washington when they first arrived and to always be accompanied by Secret Service.

“If you remember,” Mrs. Reagan said, “we’d only been there three months when by husband was shot. And that was a very close call, closer than most people realized. So I never really had perhaps the feelings that other people had about the Secret Service. I was glad to have them there.”

About the presidential Camp David retreat, Mrs. Reagan recalled that it’s “very simple, really, that’s its charm. Absolutely no press can come in, and very few people have seen Camp David. We used it as a retreat. You put on blue jeans and no makeup and it’s a wonderful, wonderful house.”


But, she added, “The phone is always there and you’re always President. It’s a change of scenery. But it’s different, the whole atmosphere is different.”

Moving out of the White House was a “bittersweet” time for Mrs. Reagan, as she has said on other occasions. “In all I had done, I felt that I was leaving so much of me there, you know what I mean?”

Jorgensen asked if the White House had a ghost.

“There is a saying that Lincoln’s ghost is around,” Mrs. Reagan replied. “The butlers who have been there for many, many years swear it’s so, and who’s to say?”

She also revealed that there were few chances to really relax while her husband was in office. They never did putter around in the kitchen, she said, but eating dinner on trays in front of the TV was a treat until the President was called back to work.

Continuing her work against drug abuse is still paramount, although “everything is a bit on hold now,” she explained, “and I’m not doing as much as I’d like to because I’m writing a book. But I feel very, very strongly about it as you all know.”

What piece of advice would she give to a future White House occupant?

“I guess it would be to be yourself, do what you’re interested in, and hang in there.”

The luncheon drew Blue Ribbon members Jane Weintraub, Annette O’Malley, Rosemarie Stack, Lee Minnelli, Andrea Van de Kamp, Jane Eisner; event committee members Harriet Deutsch, Joan Hotchkis, Dorie Pinola (with husband Joe), Jean Smith, Erlenne Sprague, Chardee Trainer and Betty Wilson.