Mark Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, broadcasting from the campus of Harvard University, where I am for the past few days. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking to Washington Post editor, columnist Karen Tumulty who has written an important new biography of Nancy Reagan, one of the most influential first ladies of the 20th century. So, Karen, thank you for participating in this conversation.
Karen Tumulty: Great to be here. Thank you for your interest in the book.
Tooley: What about Nancy’s character and her relationship with Reagan made her so influential?
Tumulty: The thing to understand about Ronald Reagan is that, as you know, gifted as he was at connecting with the American people, he was sort of a kind of solitary figure and he was close to exactly one person in the world, and it happened to be the woman he married. And so, really her power derived from two things. One, it was the power of intimacy. And number two, it was from the fact that she really saw her role as watching his back, protecting him. Reagan was an optimist. He always tended to think that things would turn out well. She was a far shrewder judge of people and the people around him and had a much clearer sense of who had their own agenda. If she decided that somebody was not acting in Ronald Reagan’s best interest, they tended not to last too long.
Tooley: Reagan famously had his own convictions and ideological worldview carefully crafted out across years and decades. Did Nancy herself have her own distinct ideology and worldview or was she more practical, pragmatic, and looking out for his interest?
Tumulty: I think her ideology is whatever is best for Ronald Reagan. Every first lady has to figure out this job for herself. Eleanor Roosevelt was sort of the conscience of the FDR presidency. In Hillary Clinton, we see her in the first term take over an entire swath of his agenda — healthcare. That was not Nancy Reagan’s role. I think she really didn’t have strong ideological fixed positions. She was very much a pragmatist. She most trusted the ideologues who were around her husband, and she was an incredibly important ally for the more pragmatic figures around him I think, among them James Baker, who was the first Chief of Staff in the Reagan White House, who in fact got his job because Nancy Reagan wanted him in that job. And George Schultz, the Secretary of State for six years of the Reagan Presidency, also found she was an incredibly important ally, because he was so often tilting against sort of the hardliners in the Defense Department and on the National Security Council.
Tooley: And often Reagan’s most hardcore conservative supporters were suspicious of Nancy’s influence, was that the case?
Tumulty: I think that was absolutely the case. And that was a strain, by the way, that went through the entire Reagan presidency, be it the more ideological conservatives, say people like Ed Meese or William Clark, one of his national security advisors. Really, there was a lot of tension between them and others like James Baker and Michael Deaver, the people who ideologues would say let Reagan be Reagan.
Tooley: Now Nancy, of course, was in Hollywood in the 1940s when Reagan was there and experienced some of the strike for the unions and the communist influence. She was influenced in the same ways I guess Reagan was. She was certainly anti-communist, but she was wary of the more hardline people in the administration in terms of relations with the Soviet Union. So, what exactly was her influence on Reagan’s relationship with the Soviet Union, especially with Gorbachev later on?
Tumulty: I think this was really her most important contribution policy wise. She, number one, she understood that there existed in her husband, for all of his hardline anti-communist rhetoric, for the fact that he was overseeing the largest peacetime military buildup in US history, but there was also an idealistic straight to Ronald Reagan. He believed, for instance, in the biblical prophecy of Armageddon. He believed it was possible that there could be a world without nuclear weapons. And she also, very much beyond the fact that she understood her husband as few other people did, she also was more focused I think even than he was on his place in history. And she really believed in his negotiating capabilities. She did not want him to go down in history as a warmonger, and she believed that if he could bring about an end to the Cold War, that this would establish him as one of the great American presidents.
Tooley: And at the end of the administration, and in subsequent years overall, was she pleased and satisfied with his legacy or were there major disappointments?
Tumulty: Well, one of the great tragedies in Ronald Reagan’s life is other ex-presidents have years, even decades, to really write the first draft of their own legacies. Ronald Reagan, very soon after he left the White House, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He had to withdraw essentially from public view, and so, it really fell upon Nancy Reagan to protect, guard, and shape this legacy. So, she did that in a number of ways. First of all, she really threw herself into the Reagan Library, where she wanted it to be not just a museum, but really a place where people would come to sort of talk about the future of conservatism and about the future of the Republican Party, something that continues to this day. And beyond that, she oversaw the release of his handwritten diaries, of 50-years worth of his correspondence, because she wanted people to see that these ideas were his own and that he was not, as some people on the left like to dismiss him as, just an actor reading lines that somebody else had written for him. And you really do see that in his diaries and in his handwritten speeches that he gave before he was president. You see it in his correspondences. And, finally, she was very, very wary of people who would sort of appropriate her husband’s name and his image for causes that she was not particularly sure that he himself would have believed in. One of the things I found interesting was that in the 1990s when the Republicans took over in the House, there was a move among some of the more conservative ones to replace Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime with a profile of Ronald Reagan, and Nancy Reagan stood up and said, “My husband would not want that. He revered Franklin D. Roosevelt. He thought more of him than any other US President.” And it was I think a surprise to a lot of people that she was not sort of willing to go for glorifying her husband wherever and whenever it suited somebody else’s agenda.
Tooley: Do you think she was the most influential first lady in the 20th century after Eleanor Roosevelt?
Tumulty: I think that she was incredibly influential. I think, again, each of these women sort of do the job according to their own strengths, their own weaknesses, the moment in history in which they find themselves, and the needs of the president. Some of them are more successful than others, but I do think she really ranks right up at the top. And what’s ironic, of course, is that she did a lot of this without leaving any fingerprints. Her image was one of the sort of very traditional pre-feminist spouse, but behind the scenes, she was very, very comfortable in her own power, and to the point where I think she terrified a lot of people in the West Wing.
Tooley: I guess perhaps historically it wasn’t that consequential, but her initial relationship with Raisa Gorbachev was a little rocky, wasn’t it?
Tumulty: Yeah. I find this so fascinating too, because these two women you might have thought would have a lot in common. Raisa Gorbachev was also very controversial in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, they usually didn’t even know much about the first lady at all, sometimes they didn’t even know how many children they had until you saw who showed up at the funeral. But Raisa Gorbachev was a brilliant academic. She was outspoken, and she too was a very, very important partner for her husband, who had a very clear sense of what she wanted his place in history to be. So, it’s almost surprising that these two women didn’t find that they had more in common, but boy, their rivalry became a kind of juicy subplot for the summits that their husbands had together.
Tooley: Did she have any direct relationship at all with Margaret Thatcher?
Tumulty: Well, there’s one story… yes, she did is the answer, in part because Ronald Reagan himself was so bonded to Margaret Thatcher, who he really did consider his political soulmate. So, Reagan, before he died, he had asked Margaret Thatcher if she would give a eulogy at his funeral. And for years when Mrs. Thatcher would travel, she would travel with a black dress packed in her suitcase in case she might be called upon to perform this duty. But by the time Reagan finally died in 2004, her own health had taken a sharp downturn and she was just not sure she could stand up and do this before a live audience. So, she videotaped a eulogy. Well, it came to Ronald Reagan’s death and they’re setting up his funeral and they go to the very stuffy National Cathedral here in Washington and they inform them that one of the eulogies would be delivered by video and the National Cathedral said, “We can’t do that. You don’t do that in the National Cathedral,” at which point Nancy Reagan conveyed to them through Fred Ryan, who had been Reagan’s Chief of Staff, that’s fine, we’ll take it down the street to National Presbyterian. And, as a result, the National Cathedral did allow the videotape even though Margaret Thatcher was sitting there in the audience, and I thought it was an act of both such generosity, but also a real understanding of what her husband wanted.
Tooley: And then, finally, you made a unique and fascinating discovery in her personal papers that no other journalist or historian had yet unearthed, that Reagan, of course, was deeply influenced by his pious mother and raised in a Protestant church in small town Illinois; I guess Nancy’s religious background was a little more complicated. Her mother had been Presbyterian, but when Nancy’s step father was dying and lacking faith, then President Reagan wrote a letter commending Christian faith to him to give him some peace of mind, which Nancy later shared at a rally, as I recall, towards the end of the Reagan Presidency in the DC area. But you found the actual copy of the letter. If you could tell us about that?
Tumulty: That’s correct. The second most important man in Nancy Reagan’s life was her stepfather, Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon. To him she was absolutely devoted, but he was really, for all intents and purposes, an atheist. And so, one day when I’m at the library, when you do research in a presidential library, there’s stuff that they have to show you because the National Archives has deemed it to be part of the president’s public record, but there is a lot of stuff that is classified as personal and they don’t have to show it to you. So, over the four and a half years I worked on the book, I was able to negotiate, beg, I can call it negotiating now, but beg them to show me some of this stuff. So, I was looking through a random box of material that had been retrieved from the last Reagan home in Bel Air in Los Angeles, and it was just a completely random collection of odds and ends, and I came across this remarkable letter. It was clear to me, it was in plastic sheeting, but it was clear to me that nobody had really read it and thought about what it really said. So, about three weeks before Loyal Davis died, and it was clear he was at the end of his life, Ronald Reagan sat down one weekend and on four pages of White House stationery, without a single word crossed out, he begs Loyal Davis to accept God before he dies. And in doing so, Reagan spells out his own faith and his own reason for believing his own view of what eternity would look like if Loyal Davis accepted Christ. And it is the most remarkable distillation of Reagan’s faith that I had ever seen. So, I did go back to the Reagan Foundation which manages all this, and I said look, I think this is an important historical document and I think it shouldn’t wait for the release of the book. And so, they did give me special permission to both reproduce the letter and to write a column about it in the Washington Post, which is easy to find if you search our site or you Google my name and “Reagan Father-in-law.” And again, I found it such a sort of crystal-clear distillation of Reagan’s faith.
Tooley: Excellent. Finally, Karen, could you hold up a copy of the book?
Tumulty: Oh, you bet. Here you go. This photo, when Simon & Schuster showed me this cover, I’d never seen this photo before and I thought it was so wonderful, because it really does sort of convey, this is a very young Nancy Reagan, it conveys that it’s both the entire sweep of her life, but also that it is a serious book. And I hope that is what people who read it find it to be, a really serious look at her life, her own legacy, and her influence.
Tooley: Karen Tumulty, author of The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, thank you very much for a fascinating conversation.
Tumulty: Thank you.