As first lady, she was called Queen Nancy, Fancy Nancy, and Dragon Lady--a high-society woman both aloof and arrogant. But that was then. Last week, after a decade in the shadows, a different, softer Nancy Reagan emerged. A woman of steadfast devotion to her husband even as Alzheimer's disease stole him away. A thoughtful woman embracing a new cause. A frail, older, but stoic woman whom the public now eagerly embraced. In Washington, D.C., as her husband's flag-draped coffin was being transferred to the horse-drawn caisson, people in the crowd shouted, "We love you, Nancy!"
The cameras lingered on her all week, and the images were vivid and stirring. There was the petite, 82-year-old woman resting a cheek on her husband's coffin. There she was waving to the crowd before flying to Washington. There she was reaching out to touch the coffin outside the Capitol. "That is a glimpse into her soul," Sheila Tate, Mrs. Reagan's former press secretary, told U.S. News. "I remember when her own father died, and I know how deeply she grieved for him and her mother. This is 10 times worse."
But this time the public is on her side. During eight years as first lady, Mrs. Reagan was vilified for her lavish gowns and fancy china. She was lampooned for relying on an astrologer to organize her husband's schedule. Her obsessive stage management and her sharp elbows in dealing with White House staff were the stuff of breathless backstairs gossip. And she wasn't shy about wanting to fire aides who, in her view, had not served her husband well--including Budget Director David Stockman, National Security Adviser William P. Clark, and Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan. In his memoir, former chief of staff Donald Regan recounts how she wanted to fire CIA chief William Casey--on his deathbed at Christmas. According to Regan, she cried: "You're more interested in protecting Bill Casey than in protecting Ronnie. He's dragging Ronnie down!" In 1987, she wanted Regan out and pushed for his ouster. Pretty soon he was gone, too.
But all that seemed forgotten last week as Mrs. Reagan earned the nation's empathy and admiration. People saw a more human, more vulnerable woman who genuinely loved her husband of 52 years and who has led a lonely life caring for him as he slipped away. The person the cameras dwelled on last week was more complex, different. Still, her old attention to detail was abundantly evident in her desire to give her husband an elaborate farewell; she reviewed the funeral plans annually, and her hand was behind many details, such as arranging for his cowboy boots to be on the riderless horse. "She took a lot of grief, and that was too bad--the clothes, the china, that sort of thing," her good friend Betsy Bloomingdale told U.S. News. "Now, I think all that's disappeared. People know she has gone through a lot, and people so respect her."
It was a new respect. For much of the public, last week provided the first real glimpse of Nancy Reagan in a very long time. Over the past decade, Mrs. Reagan had not really wanted to be away from her husband at their home in Bel Air, Calif. "Her life had gotten more and more contained to her home," says Tate. "If you look at her life with Ronald Reagan as a continuum, she always put him first. He always trusted her to watch his flank, and that's what she has been doing."
For the first five or six years of his illness, she was the person he remembered, friends said. Even when his memory faded, he still didn't want her to leave the room. "Occasionally, she went to lunch," says Tate. "She came east to christen the USS Ronald Reagan. But she always went right back." Mrs. Reagan spent her days reading and watching television. She had her friends and her children, Ron Jr. and Patti Davis. She was once estranged from Patti, but they have reconciled in recent years, and Patti's presence seemed especially comforting to her mother last week. Mrs. Reagan had also gone to a few small dinner parties over the years. She often visited the Reagan presidential library, for which she has raised money. It was a lonely life, but "she never complained, never," says Tate. "During the first five years, she seemed extraordinarily sad. What I heard change over the years was an acceptance. She came to accept his disease and the inevitable."
Since her husband announced that he had Alzheimer's disease, in 1994, Mrs. Reagan has occasionally appeared in public. She was cheered at the 1996 Republican National Convention when she said, "I can tell you with certainty he still sees the shining city on the hill." And she represented her husband at the GOP convention four years ago.