Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in Acculturated, the online magazine about the virtues and vices of pop culture and why pop culture matters.
In death as in life, Nancy Reagan, the former first lady, who lived in the White House from 1981-1989, and who died Sunday at the age of 94, couldn’t catch a break from the Washington Post. Lois Romano led off Mrs. Reagan’s Post obituary this way:
Nancy Reagan had an undeniable knack for inviting controversy. There were her extravagant spending habits at a time of double-digit unemployment, a chaotic relationship with her children and stepchildren that could rival a soap-opera plot, and the jaw-dropping news that she had insisted the White House abide by an astrologer when planning the president’s schedule.
Nancy Reagan wouldn’t have been surprised; she always got the full Marie Antoinette treatment from the Washington press corps, and why should her obituary (later stealth-edited to be even more condescending but less overtly mean) be any different?
When, for example, Nancy Reagan enlisted private donors to buy new White House china, you’d have thought she was going to take it with her when she left. It was portrayed as personal extravagance rather than a gift to the nation. But new china was overdue, the last set having been bought during the Johnson administration.
Mrs. Reagan noticed, when the couple hosted their first state dinner for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the condition of the White House china collection was deplorable, without a single pattern sufficient to serve the guests. Mrs. Reagan raised $210,399 from private sources to buy a new White House china service that would accommodate 220 people. She raised additional money to refurbish and repaint a White House that was badly in need of being spiffed up for official occasions.
And the praise from a grateful nation flowed? Well, no. While First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had been praised for her work in restoring the White House, what Nancy Reagan got instead was quite different—her “China policy” was pilloried on late night TV. She was dubbed “Queen Nancy,” as if she and Ronald Reagan were going to use the 220 place settings for their suppers in the family quarters. The late Johnny Carson joked that her favorite junk food was caviar. I don’t remember similar jokes when the Obamas served Kobe beef.
It was rarely noted that (unlike lavish spending on perks of the job in the current administration), the Reagan China, which is still in use, didn’t cost the taxpayer a penny. And yet Mrs. Reagan got accolades like this (from Newsweek): “Even her staunchest defenders concede that Nancy Reagan is more Marie Antoinette than Mother Teresa.”
When it came to clothes, the same double standard applied. Democratic First Ladies such as Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama are lauded for the stylish clothes they wear, and nobody has suggested that in hard economic times Mrs. Obama scale back on her expensive designer wardrobe. Somehow, however, it was considered a minor scandal that Nancy Reagan wanted to be an elegant first lady, even though she either spent her own money or borrowed gowns from American designers to achieve this goal. There was no rule against either, but the press was shocked, shocked.
The coverage of Mrs. Reagan’s wardrobe was such that she had to do an act of obeisance to the ladies and gentlemen of the press. Mrs. Reagan curried favor by doing her famous 1982 skit at the Gridiron Club, when, in a surprise performance, the First Lady appeared on stage in rags and sang, ”Secondhand Clothes,” to the tune of Barbra Streisand’s ”Secondhand Rose,” seeming to temporarily mollify her media critics.
If you were living in D.C. during the Reagan years and not hostile to the Reagans, however, you remember it as a time of glamour and excitement.
Nancy Reagan may be the last First Lady to have been genuinely excited about coming to Washington, D.C. Instead of agonizing over how the role of First Lady was trivial and trying to think up ways to modernize it, she set about having quiet lunches with the doyennes of Cave Dweller Society—as permanent Washingtonians used to be called and still are, to the extent that such a society still exists. These Cave Dwellers were almost all Democrats but Nancy Reagan saw them as important for the tone of the town (like the media, hardliner conservatives distrusted her for her social ambitions). She saw her job as twofold: make Ronald Reagan’s life happy and give the nation a dignified White House.
Although the Reagans were the oldest couple to live in the White House, they are second only to the Kennedys in making our nation’s house glamorous. To this end, Mrs. Reagan imported her pals from Hollywood and New York to make Washington fizzier with celebrity. Who can forget pal Jerry Zipkin, who, asked by a waiter what he wanted, replied, “Please remove the lady to my right.” The Kennedys had Pablo Casals to the White House, the Reagans had Andy Warhol. The Kennedys were hailed as intellectuals, the Reagans were dismissed in the press as shallow.
In reviewing Kitty Kelley’s tell-all book about Nancy Reagan, (which among other things posited a highly unlikely sexual affair between Mrs. Reagan and Frank Sinatra), New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “Ms. Kelley asserts that Mrs. Reagan will go down in history as the cold and glittering icon for a morally vacuous era.” Vacuous? The Reagan White House seems innocent and wholesome in retrospect, a time when the first couple was gracious and America was proud and respected. The company the Reagans kept seems, in retrospect, far more dignified than, for instance, potty-mouthed couple Beyoncé and Jay Z, who have been at times intimates of the Obamas.
But I imagine Mrs. Reagan’s truly unforgivable sin was not her spending or that famous red-bordered china, but that she defined herself completely in terms of another person—and that person was her husband. “My life didn’t really begin until I met Ronnie,” she repeatedly said. It was anathema to feminists to define one’s life in terms of a man and perhaps anathema to everyone to build a life around another human being in the Age of Me. It has been amusing to watch pundits and friends of the couple try to beef up her image in the days since her death by portraying her as a behind-the-scenes policy maven. It is true that she exerted immense influence in the White House—it was her maneuvering to axe Donald Regan, the chief of staff that she felt served her husband badly. But she wasn’t interested in any policy other than protecting Ronald Reagan. The Regan firing, by the way, is what led to revelations that Mrs. Reagan relied on astrologer Joan Quigley. It was daffy to hire an astrologer but Nancy would do anything to keep Ronnie safe.
The partnership of Ron and Nancy made two people happy and may have helped him become president, and that is her most enduring legacy. The iconic image we are likely to take away of Nancy Reagan is not of White House parties and borrowed ball gowns, but of her leaning over his flag-draped coffin for a last good-bye. Rest in peace, Mrs. Reagan—you were always a lady first.
Charlotte Hays is the Independent Women's Forum's senior editor and director of cultural programs.