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A frail Nancy Reagan probably won’t make the GOP debate

President Reagan and Nancy Reagan

President Reagan and Nancy Reagan waving from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington DC on Jan. 20, 1981

(PBS)

Nancy Reagan personally invited each candidate to the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. But it is very unlikely that Reagan, widow of the nation’s 40th president, will be there herself.

 Instead, the former first lady will probably be watching the debate on TV at home, said her spokeswoman, like millions of other politically engaged Americans.

In the last few years, as she has faltered physically, Reagan has retreated from the public eye, making only rare appearances or announcements.

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In 2008, she endorsed John McCain for president.

In 2009, she publicly thanked President Obama for lifting federal funding restrictions on stem cell research, which might one day help cure Alzheimer’s, the disease that claimed her husband’s mind long before he died.

(At his first news conference as president, Obama made a snide joke about her infamous reliance on astrology, then offered an apology the same day. Later, Michelle Obama asked for advice about running the White House, and Nancy Reagan urged her to hold as many state dinners as possible.)

In 2014, on the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death, she was photographed visiting his gravesite at the Reagan Library. Though frail and confined to a wheelchair, she looked as elegant as Americans probably remember her from her heyday as a fashion icon in the 1980s. She wore a cream-colored pantsuit, meticulous hairdo and gold lion door-knocker earrings by her favorite costume jewelry designer, Kenneth Jay Lane.

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She is “94 years young,” her spokeswoman Joanne Drake told me when I requested an interview. “Unfortunately, Mrs. Reagan has not done media interviews for many years. As much as she would like to participate in events and interviews, she’s realized that she’s had a tremendous life filled with all these exciting opportunities and now is the time to really retire.”

Indeed, the last extensive Nancy Reagan interview was published by Vanity Fair in July 2009, when she was almost 88.

At the time, she was recuperating from a fall that fractured her pelvis and sacrum, but was making a good recovery after physical therapy.

VF writer Bob Colacello wrote that she seemed profoundly sad, even when she appeared to be in good humor. “I miss Ronnie a lot, an awful lot,” she told him. “People say it gets better. No, it does not.”

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Over the last few days, a blizzard of news stories and analyses have focused on her late husband -- why his strict conservative image is often at odds with his record (on issues such as immigration, abortion and taxes), whether his impulse to compromise with political opponents would make him a stranger to his own party.

Mostly, though, political journalists and pundits have wondered what the famously gracious former actor might think of Donald Trump’s one-man war on decorum. Trump’s coarse assaults on opponents have laid waste to the idea that Republicans should not launch personal attacks on one another. This was the famous 11th commandment that Ronald Reagan helped popularize.

I was hoping to ask the person who knew him best – his wife – but she has not uttered a public word about the current field, nor is she likely to, said Drake.

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Though she has withdrawn from most socializing, Kenneth Khachigian, 71, a San Clemente attorney and political consultant who was President Reagan’s chief speechwriter, said he recently exchanged notes with “Mrs. R.”

He reminisced with her, he said, about how they used to play the Willie Nelson song “On the Road Again” during their campaign plane’s takeoff, and how Nancy Reagan used to roll an orange down the aisle of the plane as it ascended, to see how far it would go. She sent him back a warm response, he said.

“She always played a very large role in what her husband did and what he said,” Khachigian said. “I paid very close attention to anything she mentioned or recommended – mainly about tone.”

Khachigian recalled a moment during the 1980 presidential campaign, when he was asked to join the Reagans in their limo between stops. “We were working on a speech, and while he was editing away, she said, ‘It’s really important for Ronnie to be emotional and moving when he speaks,’” Khachigian said. “’That’s when he’s at his best.’”

Despite his famous hawkishness, Reagan was capable of a tenderness that is not much on display in the current GOP field.

“His kind of emotion moved people in a warm and fuzzy way, not in a hard-edged or angry way,” Khachigian said. “His stories would tug at the heartstrings of people, or just give them a feel-good sense of what the country was like.”

On the off chance that Nancy Reagan feels up to joining Wednesday’s festivities in person at the Reagan Library, Drake said, “we’ll be ready with open arms.”

 Twitter: @AbcarianLAT 

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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