After Jimmy Carter’s glum diagnosis of national malaise in 1979, Ronald Reagan supposedly restored the customary swagger of the US by making the country “feel good about itself”. That folksy blessing didn’t extend to his wife: on the evidence of Karen Tumulty’s biography, Nancy Reagan spent his entire presidency in a state of seething anxiety that frequently tipped over into hysteria.
Aides in the White House came to dread her passive-aggressive silences on the phone and her basilisk glare when she allowed them face time. Likening her to a missile, a friend tells Tumulty “she was good at going stealth”. She monopolised Ronnie and staff members who had to relay her phone calls to the Oval Office said they were on the “Mommy Watch”. In later years, as his mind blurred, she became his agitated attendant, whispering panicked prompts in the hope of covering up his debility.
Her own life was also about concealment. Her official biography begins by declaring that she was “born in Chicago, the only daughter of Dr and Mrs Loyal Davis”; both statements, as Tumulty notes, were lies. She was actually born in New York, though somewhat earlier than she claimed; she disowned her biological father and, when her mother remarried, she bullied her stepfather into adopting her. She couldn’t find anyone appropriate to marry and sniffed at the idea of becoming “a career woman”, so, as she put it, “I became an actress”. Overlooking her lack of talent, the Hollywood studio that put her under contract set her to share chatty glamour tips in magazines; one of these advised scraping face cream off with a wooden picnic fork.
Plotting her next move, she compiled a list of eligible bachelors, on which Ronald Reagan was placed first. When they married, other lies concealed her “increasingly apparent pregnancy”; they told their daughter that she was born prematurely and had spent her first two months in an incubator. When Ronnie became a salesman for General Electric, Nancy showed off appliances that supposedly helped her to confect a soufflé, though she couldn’t even make a cup of coffee.
As governor of California, Reagan was an amiable, manipulatable stooge, who opened his first staff meeting by asking: “What do we do now?” After he ambled into the presidency, Nancy busied herself renewing the White House china; Tumulty wonders if, attending a state dinner at Buckingham Palace, she pitied the poor Queen who wasn’t able “to serve all her guests with the same pattern”. She also borrowed gowns from expensive designers and pointedly failed to return them, even after being reproved by investigators.
These affluent, acquisitive pastimes were interrupted when John Hinckley Jr shot and very nearly killed the president. Ronnie joked his way through the ordeal, telling his medical team that he hoped they were all Republicans, but Nancy almost collapsed when she saw him naked, ashen, blue-lipped and caked with blood; here is the primal scene in Tumulty’s book, the reason for the “paranoid frenzy” of Nancy’s subsequent behaviour. From then on, the presidential schedule was rearranged to suit the whims of a San Francisco soothsayer to whom Nancy paid a monthly retainer. A nightly banana helped her through the sleepless, tormented small hours; in a banal detail that conveys the intensity of her continuing distress, Tumulty explains that “she feared the crunching of an apple might wake her husband”. Later, despite her campaign against drug use, she subsisted on uppers and downers.
She did occasionally coax Reagan out of his apathy, as when she urged him to open talks with Gorbachev. For her part, she refused to exchange pleasantries with Gorbachev’s doctrinaire wife, Raisa, and was vexed when she was prevented from wearing her favourite red dresses during a summit meeting in Moscow – the colour would have sent out the wrong political signal. She had her revenge by arriving for her own funeral “dressed for eternity in a red Adolfo suit”. This one, at least, she would not have to give back.
Tumulty touchingly reports on Nancy’s devotion after Alzheimer’s disease turned Ronnie into a hollow wreck, though a sharper eye intrudes when the biographer Edmund Morris contributes an account of a lunch in 1995; he anatomises the scars from Nancy’s latest facelift, then watches aghast as she rages about some gossiping women at a nearby table and demands to be told their names. “She’s off on a solo cruise,” Morris concludes as the flustered secret servicemen hustle her out of the restaurant. Tumulty, more anxious to sympathise, thinks of the Reagan marriage as an ideally durable romance and seems to give credence to Nancy’s tales of her spectral visits from Ronnie during the decade after his death. The truth is that for them love was a state of neurotic dependency and their clinging symbiosis excluded even their own dependants. A little tactlessly, their son and daughter complained in speeches at Nancy’s funeral that “no one crossed the boundary into the space they held as theirs”.
Tumulty’s book makes bold claims for Nancy’s influence, which supposedly went beyond that “of any first lady before or since”. But it was only Ronnie she influenced, not the country, and now as her ‘official’ centenary approaches she looks at best like an outmoded fashion plate, a savvier and less frigidly aloof prototype for Melania Trump. Hillary Clinton, who made valiant efforts to get a healthcare bill passed by Congress, regarded herself as an equal partner in the administration. The wilier Michelle Obama exercised what she called “soft power” by planting a vegetable garden at the White House and advising the obese to eat more healthily. By contrast, even Nancy’s anti-drug mission had a nonchalant and amateurish air: when was it ever enough to “Just say no”?
Given Tumulty’s historical short-sightedness, I don’t understand what she means by her heroine’s “triumph”: a better title for her book might have been The Trauma of Nancy Reagan. But perhaps Gloria Steinem was right in 1981 when she defined Nancy’s triumphant or even miraculous feat “of transplanting her considerable ego into a male body”. Remember that transfixing gaze she used to train on Ronnie in public? It may have been mesmerism, not adoration: the look of love as telepathic mind control.