A New Role for Nancy Reagan

Times Staff Writer

Not a single one of the movie roles on Nancy Davis' brief film resume -- housewife, pregnant housewife, mother, nurse -- was ever remotely as meaty as the parts she undertook as Nancy Reagan:

First lady of California and the nation, defender of the Reagan faith, lady in red, and lastly and lately, first caretaker -- for that 10-year watch over the dwindling mind and memory of the husband she had spent a half-century admiring, warning, protecting.

Life at its pinnacle, with the mightiest man in the world, transported her in the space of one week in 1988 to the Kremlin, to Buckingham Palace, to Disney World and home to the White House. Life at its ebb gave her a golden wedding anniversary with a man who may not even have been able to remember the face or the name of "the one person I can trust."

Always, it was Rawhide and Rainbow -- their Secret Service code names -- the two of them, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, unshakable and unbreakable.

Nancy Reagan lost her husband first to Alzheimer's disease, which cast his mind adrift, and now to death itself.

She spent 16 years as the political wife in the public eye and nearly that many behind the gates of Bel-Air, a sick man's wife out of the public gaze.

Now, about to turn 83 in July, she moves to a new and solo role, beginning this week, with public mourning and ceremonials on both coasts.

Already she has shown she is unlikely to disappear completely from public view.

George W. Bush has styled himself as the inheritor of the Reagan legacy -- even to buying a ranch and cutting brush, as Reagan did -- but Nancy Reagan emphatically crossed him recently with a public endorsement of research using embryonic stem cells as a possible path to an Alzheimer's cure. Bush has banned the use of federal money for most stem-cell research.

She rebuffed congressional Republicans who had proposed dumping Franklin D. Roosevelt from the dime and replacing his profile with Reagan's.

"I do not support this proposal," she said briskly, "and I'm certain Ronnie would not."

Former Times city editor and columnist Bill Boyarsky, who covered Reagan's governorship and wrote two books about the former president, said Nancy Reagan's motto could have been " 'I got your back,' ... though she didn't express it that way."

"When you're in politics, if you don't have someone watching your back you can really trust, you're in bad shape," he said.

She watched more than her husband's back; she watched his reputation, her radar alert to anyone who put his concerns above Ronald Reagan's, as alert to his image as those Hollywood studio press agents who once looked out for their stars. And there is no reason to think that the end of the man means the end of her vigilance.

In protecting Reagan's privacy, his wife also protected his dignity, turning down reporters and visitors, along with both well-intentioned and potentially exploitive photo-ops with a man too far gone in dementia to understand them.

Sometimes it seemed hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Michael Reagan has said his mother, Jane Wyman, got "lost in her work. Nancy gets lost in Dad."

What will be new will not be her vigilance, but her visibility. For all the comments about the patented Nancy Reagan "look," the loving gaze she fixed on her husband, Carl Sferazza Anthony, a former Nancy Reagan speechwriter and biographer of first ladies, said he expects her to retain a public role.

"Unlike Jacqueline Kennedy, who felt the public's right to her and her life ended with the state funeral of President Kennedy, Mrs. Reagan is going to be more like Edith Wilson," Anthony said. "In her case, nearly four decades of widowhood were devoted to the legacy of Woodrow Wilson."

Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's spokeswoman in the White House, said that in recent years she had found her old boss "not different, but more at peace."

"I used to hear so much true sadness in her voice the first few years after the Alzheimer's diagnosis, and gradually what replaced that was an acceptance, and literally you could hear it in her voice," Tate said. "It came from recognizing the inevitable."

In their conversations, the former first lady would muse "about how marriages aren't always 50-50, sometimes it's 90-10. And it's struck me recently that it's been 95-5 and probably 100% [to] 0 for the last few years, so it's all been on her, and she's risen to the occasion."

The famously dysfunctional Reagan family of wayward, rebellious or distant offspring, his and theirs, has returned to the fold, Tate said, its fissures closed up by the enormity of Alzheimer's.

"She and [daughter] Patti have become very, very close in the last few years," said Tate, "and I think that's going to be hugely important in the immediate aftermath." Patti Davis has been living with her mother in the Reagan home during the former president's final illness, a friend said.

That the twilight of Alzheimer's knows no partisanship is evident in the friendship between Nancy Reagan and Casey Ribicoff, whose husband, Abe, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, died of Alzheimer's complications about six years ago.

Nancy Reagan really had two jobs, Ribicoff said: caring for her husband, and dealing with those who sought his reflected glory. "She's been very disciplined about that, and tried to respect what he would have wanted."

Her emotional strength is "enormous.... She'll do fine, and she'll keep it all together" in the coming weeks. "Her ability to make him comfortable, and her loving, never ended. It is, as Nancy always said, a long goodbye."

Former Reagan aide and speechwriter Ken Khachigian says he expects she will spend some time "sorting out what life will be like for her without Ronnie." But it's easier, he said, to imagine Nancy without Ron than the other way around: "She was the absolute anchor in his life."

Just as every president somehow expands and alters the job, so does every first lady -- perhaps even more so in a job with no written description at all.

Maria Shriver has found that out as she feels her way into the California first lady role. On Sunday, in Orange County to speak to a church congregation and autograph copies of her children's book about Alzheimer's, she said she had lunch with Nancy Reagan not long after her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected governor.

Shriver said she asked, " 'Help me. Help me. Tell me what I should do.' And she said, 'I don't need to tell you what to do. You do exactly what you want to do.' "

For Nancy Reagan's years in the shadow of her husband's illness, said Shriver, "she will have my admiration forever."

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Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction Nancy Reagan -- A caption in Monday's Section A with a photo from the film "Hellcats of the Navy" referred to Nancy Davis as Ronald Reagan's future wife. They were already married when the movie was made.
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