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Remembering Nancy Reagan

A toast to the former first lady and all her facets

By Tom Carson

Once upon a time, a now-forgotten saloon singer named Francis Albert Sinatra recorded a tune called "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)." A sentimental fellow whenever he wasn’t threatening mayhem to anyone who dared to criticize him, Frank thought it had been composed in honor of his newborn daughter, and the songwriters decided they’d let him roll with that illusion. It wasn’t the truth, but it was only a song.

Decades later, "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)" entered political history. Now a lot burlier, more reliant on toupees, and even more prone to threatening mayhem to anyone who dared to criticize him, the self-same Frank Sinatra sang it — with revised lyrics — at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural. What’s a bungled notion of hailing your daughter compared to celebrating the new first lady of the United States?

The sad thing is that Nancy Reagan’s face was never exactly renowned for its bubbly gift of childish laughter. She did have a nice smile, like a superbly arranged bunch of white bullets greeting you below two anxious, frozen blueberries. But spontaneity wasn’t her specialty. The facial expression she was most famous for — others had tried, but she perfected it — was the Adoring Wife as Ronnie made one more of his gazillion speeches. At least on TV, her signature was tension disguised as pride.

She had reasons for the tension. Yet she also had reasons for the pride. Nancy Reagan would be the heroine of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie if she hadn’t ended up in the White House. Born Anne Francis Robbins in 1921, her birth parents split up before she was just 2, making for a few confusing years until her mother remarried a prominent (and virulently racist) Chicago neurosurgeon named Loyal Davis. She went to her grave revering him. That’s what a savior can do to a child.

Her mother had been an actress, and by 1949 Nancy Davis was a starlet under contract to MGM. A potentially career-killing confusion with another Nancy Davis who was alleged to be a Communist led her to ask for help from the then-president of the Screen Actors Guild, a minor matinee idol of the 1940s who was discovering a fondness for microphones as the camera’s interest waned. When Nancy met Ronald Reagan, she was trying — oh, the symbolism! — to clear her name.

When she married him, it’s worth remembering that the presidency of SAG looked like the uppermost limit of his ambitions to office, or, for that matter, to much of anything. Unlike most political spouses, she had no idea — and, likely, neither did Ron — that the White House was a potential future residence. Anytime you want to mock Nancy Reagan, try to picture yourself as a not especially reflective slight Hollywood starlet who got hitched one day in 1952 to a man whose best days he feared were behind him. "Oh, Carrie! Carrie!" as Dreiser might say.

It doesn’t matter what you thought of her husband. As the wife of the governor of California and then the president of the United States, Nancy Reagan was a political spouse the way the mighty Mississippi is a creek. People always joke about Reagan as someone who only became a great actor once he was elected — role of a lifetime and all that — but what about her? Whatever you thought of her, you’d have a hard time proving she was bad at the job.

Nancy did have an awful streak a mile wide. She liked money as much as her husband did, she liked glitz a lot more, and she equated both with having grace, maybe the most American thing about her. Her fondness for lavish expenditure was making her despised in Washington until she rescued herself with a genuinely funny self-parody at the Gridiron Club dinner. Far more consequentially, she turned her back on her old pal Rock Hudson — and a burgeoning epidemic — just weeks before he died of AIDS complications.

People still hoot at her for using an astrologist to decide which days were optimal for Ron to do this or that, and they’re not wrong. But try to remember that this was after he’d been shot. Nonetheless, when it came to the most crucial decision of Reagan’s presidency — figuring out whether to trust Mikhail Gorbachev and effectively end the Cold War — Nancy was on the side of the angels, and her vote may have made all the difference. For that alone, we should honor her.

We should honor her, too, for her gallantry after Reagan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, including her defense of stem-cell research — the first-ever political position she went public with on her own after decades in public life. She was a creature from a time that’s now being hustled to the exits, and not a minute too soon. But even though I loathed Reagan and always will, there’s only one salute for Nancy: "Oh, Carrie, Carrie! In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel." Maybe she was Frank Sinatra’s daughter after all, and if that’s not true, well, it’s only a song.

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