But when she put together a book to try to make people like her, she filled it with verbal karate chops to the throats of White House staffers, the press, Jane Wyman and the Reagan children.
"Well," the former First Lady said, concluding an interview in her Los Angeles office, "if I'd written a (non-controversial) book like Lady Bird Johnson's, why write it? Lord, eight years is a long time to sit there and not say anything."
In "My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan," released this week by Random House, there are many self-inflicted wounds, especially where the former First Lady admits her failings as a mother. Although many passages evoke sympathy, detailing the roaring depths of Nancy Reagan's fears, disappointments and insecurities, her memoirs are excruciatingly tough on others.
That observation seems to disturb her.
"Oh, God, the butterflies!" she said. "Don't you think there will be anybody out there saying, 'Good for her!'? "
Certainly, some readers will applaud her chutzpah for speaking frankly, but it's doubtful most will walk away with the kind of empathy and insight into her life that she would like.
The problem with getting a fix on Nancy Reagan always has been that she is two entirely different people.
On the one hand, she's a vulnerable woman who loves to be loved, who dresses and decorates beautifully and builds her world around her husband. This is what Reagan calls her "fluff head" image, the view of her that prevailed early in her husband's Administration.
On the other hand, Nancy Reagan also is a savvy political adviser who never backed away from a fight. She was viewed as the power behind the throne, or as she describes it, "The Dragon Lady" who appeared in the press in the later White House years.
Reagan rightly complains in her book that she is neither of the caricatures--in the extreme. But she fools herself to hold out the hope that her "memoirs" prove there is no truth in either image.
Indeed, the two Nancy Reagans dart in and out of her the 374-page text, which shows that even upon reflection, the former First Lady still has no hint why people dislike her.
She argues--or at least hopes--it's all merely a matter of misinformation. So in her book, she offers chunks large and small on a dizzying array of subjects:
* She says she borrowed costly designer dresses because she couldn't possibly afford to buy them.
* Daughter Patti threw up her baby food and tried to run away with the boarding school dishwasher when she was 12.
* Young Michael Reagan (the son of Jane Wyman, the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan) came to live with "Ronnie" and Nancy at the suggestion of a psychiatrist--arriving with 10 cavities and not many clothes.
* Ronnie and Nancy fought over the kids and money.
Nancy Reagan also dishes up juicy tidbits about the Washington years:
* Raisa Gorbachev's hair "became less red over the years!" And the Soviet First Lady wore a dress that "made her look like a prison matron."
* Members of the press who criticized her may have been mostly young feminists jealous of her solid marriage and slim figure.
* Secretary of State Alexander Haig wanted to turn Cuba "into a parking lot."
* Michael Deaver, once her closest friend, is no longer, having succumbed to "Potomac Fever."
Throughout her memoirs, Reagan criticizes staffers and others who used her husband to promote their own agendas.
She disdains those who act in a self-serving manner, especially those like former budget director David Stockman and former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, who wrote tell-all books for big bucks.
But didn't she just write a self-serving, tell-all book for big bucks?
"I don't think so," she replied. "I don't think if you try to straighten the record out, I don't think that's self-serving."
Though her version of the record may damage others' reputations, "What about my reputation for eight years?" she asked.
"God, I hope I did walk this line," she said. "There's a fine line when you're writing this kind of a book. You don't want to sound defensive and you don't want to sound vindictive.
"Just to straighten everything out for everybody, I thought, well, everybody's had their turn, now it's my turn. There's a certain dignity in silence. But then on the other hand, for my sake, for my children's sake, for history's sake, I just wanted there to be a more accurate picture."
In Nancy Reagan's White House portrait, Stockman, Atty. Gen. Ed Meese, National Security Adviser William Clark, Interior Secretary James Watt and many other high-level Administration officials are dealt with severely.
President George Bush, then the vice president, doesn't fare well, either. In one scene, he complains to Nancy Reagan about Regan and she says: "I wish you'd tell my husband. I can't be the only one who's saying this to him."
"Nancy," he says, "that's not my role."
"That's exactly your role," I replied.
Did Reagan consider shrinking from including that scene in which she dresses down the man who is now President? "I wasn't dressing him down," she said.
Told that the book clearly portrays Bush as being afraid to go in and tell President Reagan his views, she answers back, "That's your interpretation. That might not be his interpretation. He may have legitimately seen that it was not his job."
Reagan also wrote that when her husband was choosing his running mate, "I didn't like George Bush. Ronnie would have preferred (Nevada Republican Sen.) Paul Laxalt."
Asked if she now likes Bush, who once labeled her husband's philosophy "voodoo economics," Nancy Reagan says only, "Sure."
Even as she tried to explain that she did not have as much influence as many believed, she conceded that she and her husband argued about Regan; she described her campaign to get him fired in unabashed detail, defending her actions by noting that "a stream of high government officials and Congressional leaders" pleaded with her to get Regan ousted.
But she wrote conflicting statements about her role.
On the one hand: "I had to get in there because nobody else would tell Ronnie what was going on."
On the other hand: "I did not mastermind a plot to get rid of Don Regan. There was no cabal. I wasn't in cahoots with anybody to bring about his downfall."
Reagan wrote that she found former First Lady Rosalynn Carter's attendance at Cabinet meetings "embarrassing."
But she related how she attended a meeting with the President, former Secretary of State William Rogers and Democratic chairman Robert Strauss, discussing how to handle the then-budding Iran-Contra scandal.
Nancy Reagan called Strauss afterwards to thank him for speaking frankly about the need to oust Regan. A short time later she fumed at the President, "I was right about David Stockman. I was right about Bill Clark. Why won't you listen to me about Don Regan?"
In an innocent tone, she added that she tried to talk her husband out of his Bitburg visit in May, 1985, which caused an uproar in the Jewish community because of the presence of SS soldiers' graves in the German cemetery where the President was to appear. She wrote that she "was furious at (West German Prime Minister) Helmut Kohl for not getting us out" of the ceremonies.
"I was somewhat more successful," she wrote, "in encouraging Ronnie to consider a more conciliatory relationship with the Soviet Union."
Much of her book carries more detailed explanations of things Nancy Reagan has said before. But there is new material on her children and her dependence on astrology.
For the first time, Reagan has admitted that daughter Patti "was born--go ahead and count--a bit precipitously but very joyfully Oct. 22, 1952," after their marriage the previous March, two weeks after they announced their engagement.
In her memoirs, she wrote that she disapproved when Patti and Ron lived with lovers before they were married; in her 1981 autobiography, "Nancy," she had railed against "premarital sex."
But in the interview, Reagan sees no conflict in her views. In the case of Patti's conception, "Uh, if you're asking if I ever lived with Ronnie, 'No, I did not.' Um, but you're also talking about a man in his 40s and a woman--what? (she paused to compute her age, another subject of dispute)--in her late 20s. We're not talking about teen-agers. And we knew we were going to get married."
Critics have often accused the Reagans of hypocrisy for espousing "family values" while having a tangled set of personal relationships themselves.
"It's true that we weren't always able to live up to the things we believed in," Reagan wrote, "but that doesn't mean we didn't believe in them."
She admitted that she was a "nervous" new mother with Patti and made numerous mistakes with all the children. She said that she and her husband both were too lenient and she resented that he forced her to be "the heavy" in matters of discipline.
Her estrangement from her first-born child remains one of her greatest disappointments, especially since "what I wanted most in the world was to be a good wife and mother."
Reagan, in her book, admitted for the first time that Patti's thinly disguised novel "Homefront," which depicted a shallow and cruel mother, was "unpleasant (and) critical."
But in the interview, the former First Lady said that she did not think her own book performed the same deed of publicly airing private family difficulties in a most unflattering way.
"No, not at all," she said. "I leave the door very open for Patti, with the red carpet down. I say that nothing would please me more than to have a reconciliation."
Many of her family travails occured because theirs was "a blended family," she wrote; she blames many of the problems, implicitly and explicitly, on Jane Wyman, her husband's former wife.
"When people would say, 'Well, thus and so about the Reagans,' it would always be the two of us, instead of--there was another Reagan family," she said in the interview. "And a lot of the things that they were criticizing or commenting on, I wasn't anywhere around."
She found Wyman's decision to send 5-year-old Michael to boarding school "appalling" and wrote, "we faced the difficulties of a blended family without much communication between us and Jane Wyman."
Nancy Reagan later put Patti and Ron Jr. in boarding schools but observed "Patti (then) was in eighth grade and Ron was in high school. That's a big difference."
She said she had not talked with Wyman before writing her book, saying of her, "No. She leads a very solitary life."
Reagan said she had no second thoughts about the family section of her book: "No. If you don't write about everything they're going to say you're hiding, you're avoiding. So I had to do it. But that's not easy for a mother to talk about her children."
In the astrology section, Nancy Reagan explains that she felt personally responsible for the attempted assassination of her husband because she had not been with him--an irrational but common reaction to family tragedies.
In the midst of her guilt, helplessness and escalating threats of more shootings, Merv Griffin, the Hollywood celebrity and an old pal, called her.
He said San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley had claimed that she could have predicted that the day of the assassination attempt was unsafe for the President.
"Oh, my God! I could have stopped it!" Mrs. Reagan thought.
A telephone relationship quickly developed, with Quigley not only suggesting safe travel dates but also serving as "kind of a therapist" for her to discuss all her problems.
"As bad as cancer was, a shooting is so much worse, I can't begin to tell you," she said.
In the book, her overwhelming fear comes across vividly as she drops weight and becomes obsessed with things like the 20-year cycle of Presidents dying in office and the belief that bad happenings come in threes--with the two other incidents being the unsuccessful papal assassination and the fatal attack on Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.
Does she really believe in these things?
"I come from a theater family that has all the superstitions in the world," Reagan said, adding that she thought of astrology as a way of "hedging bets." (Reagan was born July 6 under the sign of Cancer.)
And as she notes in her book, she still is not ready to rule out the possibility that Quigley's advice saved her husband's life. "Don't criticize it until you have stood in my place," she wrote. "This helped me. Nobody was hurt by it--except possibly me."
In a somewhat typical Reagan aside, she complains about the price of Quigley's sessions.
"I hoped she would volunteer her services . . . but no such luck," she wrote. "It wasn't cheap! Joan sent me monthly statements."
Money is a subject never very far from the Reagans.
Nancy Reagan talks about struggles for money early in their marriage when her husband's acting career hit the skids, forcing her to go back to work to support them months after Patti was born.
She reveals that they were billed for their food in the White House, and asserts that she could not afford to buy all the dresses she needed to perform her duties as First Lady.
Reminded that a published story estimated their assets at $4 million and their published tax returns showed an income of more than $300,000 in 1987, Reagan stuck to her defense, saying, "You see, our money was in a blind trust. We didn't know how much we had."
But they knew they were not impoverished. "No, we weren't impoverished," she said. "But we did not know how much money we had. When you're in that position, as Barbara (Bush) is learning now, you need more clothes. I still don't see anything wrong with it."
Nancy Reagan's "Dragon Lady" defense is that the President often didn't take her advice or took it later than she would have liked.
Ironically, in these instances, particularly with Regan, readers will conclude her advice was right, with the final result being the same--that the President comes out looking wimpish in comparison to his wife.
Reagan said in the interview that her husband has never chafed at allegations she had too much influence over him: "No, no. He's a very secure man within himself. When he had reached that point in his own thinking, then he did what he felt was the right thing to do. He's never threatened by my giving advice or opinions, ever."
Although she blames Regan, former national security adviser John Poindexter and others for the Iran-Contra debacle, she says of her husband, "there were times when his optimism led to problems, and when a more suspicious person might have asked important and tough questions."
The former President also is made out to be less than heroic and brave when Reagan describes the discovery of his cancer.
The day before his routine test on a smaller benign polyp, Reagan had to drink large doses of an unpleasant medicine called Go Lightly. When the test revealed another larger, probably cancerous growth in his intestine, Nancy Reagan was informed first; she insisted on telling her husband herself. She told his doctors not to use the word "cancer" when dealing with him.
Instead, he gets treated as a child might be: "When we walked into Ronnie's room, I sat down on the edge of the bed and put my arms around him. 'Honey,' I said, 'the doctors have found a polyp that is too large to be removed the way the other ones were. The only way they can get it out is surgically. As long as we're here, why don't we do it tomorrow and get it over with? Because if we come back next week, you'll have to drink that Go Lightly all over again.' Somehow Ronnie was able to smile. 'Does this mean I won't be getting dinner tonight, either?' "
In the interview, Reagan discussed her approach, saying, "Maybe I was wrong. But I just felt that until we knew, there was no point. I mean, it could have come out either way, and then he would have lost a night's sleep. I don't know. I guess every couple is different."
The mothering in their relationship is apparent, even down to their names for each other: Mommy and Ronnie.
"Yeah, well, that's us," Nancy Reagan said. "That's the way it is."
She does not see it detracting from his image.
"No, a lot of men like to be mothered," she said.
The former President has read her book and did not change anything, she said, adding: "He likes it."
A NANCY REAGAN 'HORROR SCOPE'
A look at the former First Lady's universe as revealed in her soon-to-be released memoirs, 'My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan.'
The President and His Men