Saturday, June 26, 2010
Happy birthday, Nancy
Happy birthday to Nancy Reagan, who will turn 89 on July 13.
Now, you know me: I've been a liberal Democrat since I was a kid, when my mother warned me that a boogeyman named Joe McCarthy would get me if I didn't eat all my lima beans.
But, at the risk of shocking my friends in Berkeley, I think Nancy was a good First Lady.
Yes, I know she got off to a rocky start. Her critics painted her as a latter-day Marie Antoinette who wore designer gowns and munched lobster salad at Le Cirque with her pals Babe Paley, Betsy Bloomingdale and Jerry "The Social Moth" Zipkin.
Even her anti-drug "Just say no" campaign was an embarrassment, especially when she said, "Drugs are such a downer" - apparently not realizing that "downer" was a word from the drug culture, meaning sedative.
In short, she wasn't Eleanor Roosevelt. And she never should have tried to be. Dandling third world babies on her knee just wasn't her style.
What she did well - and she did it really well - was being her husband's loyal partner. And during the second Reagan term, that partnership helped change the world.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan were what Kurt Vonnegut termed a "duprass" - a union between two people that is so strong, it can't be penetrated even by children born of that union (as their children, Patti and Ron Jr., were to discover to their sorrow).
Her devotion to him trumped everything, even ideology. She had been a lifelong conservative; in fact, it was she and her stepfather, Dr. Loyal Davis, who converted Ronnie from a New Deal Democrat to a Goldwater Republican.
But her devotion to conservatism paled in comparison to the only thing she ever really cared about: What was good for Ronnie?
And in the mid-1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in the Soviet Union seemed to present an opportunity to make a serious deal, she decided that what would be good for Ronnie would be to go down in history as a peacemaker.
So, operating hand-in-hand with her ally, Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Deaver, she engineered the ouster of Deaver's nominal boss, belligerent Chief of Staff Donald Regan, and his replacement by the more pragmatic Howard Baker.
Then she urged Ronnie to hold summit conferences with Gorbachev and establish a personal friendship beforehand.
To do this, she had to overcome not only her own anti-Communist instincts, but also her intense dislike of Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, whom she found absolutely insufferable.
And Ronnie listened to her because he knew she was the only person in the world who had no agenda but his best interests.
The Reagan-Gorbachev friendship resulted in the 1987 INF Treaty, the first step in the process that led to the peaceful end of the Cold War - and on our terms, too.
She has also been a good ex-First Lady, taking loving care of her husband during his long battle with Alzheimer's and defying Republican orthodoxy by championing stem cell research.
That was because of Ronnie, too. If stem cells could help him or others suffering from that terrible disease, then ideology be damned.
I don't think she set out to change the world. What she did, she did for love. But she changed the world all the same.