Jennifer Pickens: Nancy Reagan's 100th birthday – her legacy of class, elegance and style endures. Here's why
It is a staggering to think of all the events that Nancy Reagan hosted under her tenure
The height of American glamour, style and entertaining at the White House was during the 1980s, where for eight years the Reagans played host to countless ceremonies, state dinners, parties, and cultural and social events.
The iconic Reagan style mixed Washington, D.C., politicos with Hollywood royalty under the exquisite eye of first lady Nancy Reagan, whose centennial we celebrate this 6th of July.
As our country begins to reopen, and we return to having celebrations and many of our beloved traditions, we can hope that the White House will do the same. When it does, it will do so under the direction of our new first lady, who could draw inspiration from Nancy Reagan on how to capitalize on building meaningful international relationships through social diplomacy.
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Nancy Reagan always personified class, elegance and style in a way that made people want to come and experience anything at the White House.
In her memoir, "My Turn" she wrote, "Every first lady makes her own choices, and mine was to become very involved in planning White House events, right down to the details: the menu, table settings, flowers and entertainment,"
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Social diplomacy is an integral part of America’s strength in the world and has helped build and strengthen our alliances throughout our history. In addition to her many other contributions as first lady, including her "just say no campaign," historic restorations and more, Nancy Reagan was a trailblazer in utilizing soft diplomacy.
The grandest and most coveted social invitations in the world is without a doubt an invitation to a U.S. state dinner. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "A state dinner is the highest social honor we can bestow on another country. It is very much sought after. If we’ve honored a country with a state dinner, it means that country is certainly in good standing with the United States."
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And no first lady worked harder at these affairs that Nancy Reagan.
The Reagans infused every White House event with a level of sophistication that had not been seen in years. The first lady restored many protocols that the Carters stripped away, such as the Color Guard accompanying the first couple and their guests of honor down the Grand Staircase as they were announced, and made an invitation to the White House the envy of the world.
Famed American fashion designer Carolina Herrera said, "Mrs. Reagan knew the essentials of a great party were great lighting, great flowers, great food and a great mix of guests, which produced great distinction and great American style and glamour."
Nancy Reagan looked forward to the challenge of entertaining regularly – and on a grand scale – knowing what could be accomplished in a social setting. Through their Hollywood connections, the Reagans filled the White House with some of the biggest celebrities of their day – Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, Betsy Bloomingdale, Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck – whom the first couple entertained alongside power brokers, writers, politicians and titans of industry. She would use the tools to create moments that would stun the globe.
Nancy Reagan’s social events helped lead to some of the strongest alliances with foreign powers.
For example, Nancy Reagan personally orchestrated John Travolta’s famous dance and spin of Princess Diana in the Entry Hall of the White House. Magazine editor and journalist Tina Brown said Nancy Reagan "understood how to create those iconic moments." And her fashion choice was no doubt part of that, dressing in the most notable of designers such as James Galanos, Oscar de la Renta, Arnold Scassi and Bill Blass, just to name a few.
Whether it was an intimate dinner held in the private quarters of the White House, a South Lawn Fourth of July celebration, or a state dinner, perfection was key. During her eight years in Washington as the first lady, the first couple hosted about 55 state dinners. It is a staggering to think of all the events that Nancy Reagan hosted under her tenure: the research, vetting, organization and preparation that go to executing major White House events, perfectly and without our modern technology and the internet.
These events are not just about entertaining. Serious business, deals and relationships are formed at every social interaction. Nancy Reagan’s social events helped lead to some of the strongest alliances with foreign powers.
The couple’s first state dinner was Feb. 26, 1981 – only 35 days after President Reagan took office – for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Denis Thatcher. The president and prime minister were very close, so it was fitting that his first (and later last) state dinner was held in her honor. Fewer than 100 guests were invited to the inaugural dinner, because Nancy Reagan preferred small gatherings, increasing the chance for guests to have meaningful conversations and solidify important relationships.
Hosting the Gorbachevs was another one of the many examples of her abilities. Although all state dinners are historically important, the one for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was the most significant of the Reagan administration.
The White House called upon pianist Van Cliburn to perform at the dinner. In 1958, the Texas native was the first American to win the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, but he hadn’t given a live performance in nine years, making an exception for this occasion. President Gorbachev was so moved he even hugged and kissed the pianist at the end of the night.
The Reagan charm offensive had paid off and social diplomacy proved effective.
"President Gorbachev and my husband had a certain chemistry that helped improve relations," Nancy Reagan wrote. "Their friendship continued even after both had left office." That chemistry helped end the Cold War – and it lasted a lifetime. Seventeen years later, at the state funeral of Ronald Reagan, sat his former foe turned friend, Mikhail Gorbachev.
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Entertaining and soft diplomacy at the White House will bring with it much more significance as America is yearning for a return to normalcy and secure global alliances. President and Jill Biden would benefit greatly by studying the Reagan years at the White House.
While Nancy Reagan’s legacy of entertaining remains unmatched at 1600 Pennsylvania, she does serve as the gold standard, and we honor her life, impact and legacy on what would have been her 100th birthday.
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