Ronald Reagan’s supporters were preparing to erect a statue of the late president and California governor at the state Capitol last year, but to Nancy Reagan, it looked off.
Her husband’s tie tack was missing and his cufflinks were wrong. So were his shoelaces and the way he held his hands. His smile, at her direction, was recast, said Doug Elmets, a Sacramento public affairs consultant who worked in the Reagan White House and consulted with Nancy Reagan on the statue.
“There were wholesale changes of the original statue because they did not meet with what she felt was a clear reflection of Ronald Reagan,” Elmets said.
For Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday, the bronze statue installed in the Capitol’s basement rotunda reflected not only the life of her husband, but also the fiercest guardian of his image – from his political campaigns to his handling of the Iran-Contra scandal to his protracted battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
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“She was amazingly protective of him,” Elmets said. “She was influential in his decision-making when he was governor, when he was president, and certainly in the days after he left office.”
Nancy Reagan came with her husband to Sacramento when he became governor in 1967, and Elmets, who read a letter from Nancy Reagan at the statue’s unveiling last year, said she spoke fondly of a city where “she developed, maybe, an affinity for the political life.”
Her arrival brought controversy, however. She and the governor moved out of the historic governor’s mansion during his first year in office, Nancy Reagan famously calling the building a firetrap. Her high style was the subject of both praise and derision.
In an interview with The Washington Post in 1989, Nancy Reagan accused reporters in Sacramento of taking sweepings from the barbershop floor where her husband had his hair cut to determine if he dyed his hair.
“They’d take it out and test it and still they would say he dyed his hair,” she told the newspaper.
There were wholesale changes of the original statue because they did not meet with what she felt was a clear reflection of Ronald Reagan.
Doug Elmets, public affairs consultant, on Reagan’s Capitol statue
Sal Russo, a Sacramento consultant who worked on Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign in 1966 and then went into his administration, described Nancy Reagan as a forceful adviser – a contrast to Reagan’s gentler approach to personnel.
“He would be forgiving of people that didn’t do a very good job, or were disloyal,” Russo said. “Whereas Mrs. Reagan expected you to be competent and be loyal. … You got along fine with her if you were competent and loyal.”
Russo said Nancy Reagan, while she spent weekdays in Sacramento with her husband, was “more comfortable in the L.A. social scene … very connected to, as (Ronald Reagan) used to call it, ‘the picture business.’ ”
He added, “So if the two of them were talking, they never talked about, ‘What are you going to do about the budget, Ron?’ It was always about who’s going to do a movie, who’s dating who in Hollywood. That was the center of their life, Hollywood.”
You got along fine with her if you were competent and loyal.
Sal Russo, Sacramento consultant who worked for Ronald Reagan
Hilary Abramson, a Sacramento journalist who interviewed Nancy Reagan and her husband for a profile in 1976, described the first lady as possessing “an extremely icy personality, nearly impenetrable … to a stranger such as myself.”
Abramson recalled a Reagan aide telling her that “the only genuine thing about Nancy Reagan is her love and affection for her husband” and putting questions about the first lady’s demeanor to the former governor.
She said he told her: “I think Nancy’s biggest strength and weakness is linked. She has the capacity for intense love and loyalty where family is concerned. I don’t know why people say those things about her. It hurts me more than it does her.”
Gov. Jerry Brown said in a prepared statement Sunday that Nancy Reagan “lived a remarkable life and will be remembered for her strength and grace.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said, “She set an example as a first lady who truly stood on her own as a force.”
Republican candidates for president also issued praise. Each election year, Republican presidential hopefuls seek to associate themselves with Ronald Reagan.
But Elmets said Nancy Reagan would be “shaking her head in disgust” at the lack of decorum and the vulgarity in the current campaign.
“It should be embarrassing to everyone,” he said. “But clearly if you were a first lady, I’ve got to imagine you look at this and you think, ‘What has become of our democracy? What has become of America?’ ”
He said he hoped the memory of Nancy Reagan’s life might “have some effect on this circuslike campaign.”