Artist Douglas Van Howd spent years crafting a statue of former President Ronald Reagan, his friend. Nancy Reagan wanted to make sure every detail of the statue was just right.
The former first lady supplied Van Howd with tracings of the governor’s shoes so he could accurately sculpt them, and photos of his wardrobe, down to the cuff links and tie tack he wore as governor. Such attention – thoughtful, loving and fierce in its mission to guard the memory of her husband – was perhaps her signature trait.
In this, the adoring and protective wife of President Ronald Reagan set a standard for all first ladies who followed. Mrs. Reagan, who died Sunday in Los Angeles at age 94, leaves a legacy of style and grace, and iron-willed loyalty.
Hers was the face of a generation that prized civility in high office, a trait too often absent from public discourse. Hers, too, was the face of a generation of women who saw their role as auxiliary, but nonetheless crucial, helpmates to more powerful husbands.
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Call it old-fashioned, but her style persists today in the way Americans view the role of their first lady. Not since Jackie Kennedy had a presidential spouse had such impact on the way American women view their place in, and obligations to, society.
Nancy Reagan showed political wives how to dress, entertain, influence and even how to gaze at their husbands. After her, the “Reagan red” suit became a signature look for Republican women.
Though, at the time, she was criticized for the sway she held over her affable husband, she set the bar for first ladies to come and influenced him on issues small and historic.
She encouraged Reagan, for example, to engage in arms-reduction negotiations with the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan’s work to end the Cold War would become his greatest legacy.
Other accomplishments were more mixed. In the White House, she was a national voice on drug abuse. Though her “just say no” campaign would be mocked as simplistic, it remains an iconic statement of principle. She came around, four years after AIDS began ravaging gay men, to become an advocate for AIDS research after the disease claimed the life of the Reagans’ friend, Rock Hudson.
Some people remember that initial reticence; 20,000 people had died of AIDS by the time the epidemic gained the attention of the White House. Two weeks ago, when the California Legislature considered a resolution commemorating Reagan’s birth, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, asked that the resolution be removed from the consent calendar. He and five other senators voted against it. It’s easy to forget the difference between then and now.
With time and age, her advocacy became more effective and focused. Back in California, she agitated for research into Alzheimer’s disease, the scourge that claimed the life of her beloved Ronnie. Her mission was such that she broke with President George W. Bush by advocating for research into stem cell therapy, providing an important voice for what in the middle 2000s was controversial research.
In Sacramento, she is famous for refusing to live in the Governor’s Mansion, which she viewed as a “firetrap.” Instead, during Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor, they leased a home in the Fabulous Forties while money was raised for a second “mansion,” though Reagan was out of office by the time it was built.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who succeeded Reagan, declined to live in the residence, preferring an apartment across from the Capitol. He recently moved back to the refurbished mansion, where his family lived when Pat Brown was governor. Times change, and priorities change, too.
One thing that stood fast was Nancy Reagan’s will to make history see her husband as she saw him. A twin of the bronze statue of Gov. Reagan, unveiled in the Capitol last year with shoelaces and cuff links in perfect order, soon will go on display at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, where Mrs. Reagan will be buried, alongside the love of her life and her legacy.