RONALD REAGAN: 1911-2004
Up next for Nancy Reagan: tending her Ronnie's flame
By Associated Press
Published June 13, 2004
Two years after the Reagans revealed that the former president suffered from Alzheimer's, Nancy Reagan made her first solo appearance at the 1996 Republican National Convention to address delegates on behalf of the man who couldn't.
Family confidant Michael Deaver would later recall the thunderous applause and standing ovation as "pent-up emotion for the Reagan who wasn't there and deep affection for the one who was but had always stayed in the background."
The ensuing years grew ever more solitary for the former first lady, as a husband's love letters stopped, memories were stolen and intimate chats turned one-sided - as the man who was her everything disappeared under the dark cloud of disease.
The long goodbye, she called it. Now their farewell is absolute, and Nancy Reagan stands alone in earnest. What does it mean for the woman who often said her life began with him, her Ronnie?
"If you asked her that question today, she'd mention Gone With the Wind when Scarlett said, "I'll think about that tomorrow,' " says Sheila Tate, Mrs. Reagan's former White House press secretary and friend. "Right now, her job is to lay her husband to rest and to come to grips with his death."
But when tomorrow dawns, the ceremonies end and the grief eases, friends and longtime associates expect Mrs. Reagan to return to the role that has come to define her: as the fierce protector, advocate and guardian of a man and his memory.
"She will devote the rest of her life to preserving and disseminating what she considers her husband's legacy to be," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a former speechwriter for Mrs. Reagan.
Adds one of her oldest chums, Betsy Bloomingdale: "She's very focused on what she wants to do and what she wants to accomplish. She will be busy."
There will be time spent catching up with the friends who tried to watch over her, coaxing her to a horse show or a quick lunch at the Bel-Air Hotel.
And time shared with loved ones like daughter Patti Davis, who mended family rifts during her father's illness and has become, especially in recent days, the shoulder on which Mrs. Reagan leans.
Still, those close to her say, most of her time will be consumed by the things that were near to her husband's heart and her own - including his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., which was a respite to which Mrs. Reagan frequently ventured in past years to autograph books or attend seminars.
At the top of her priorities is continuing to raise money and advocate on behalf of research that could help others who suffer from the disease that plagued her husband. In 1998, Mrs. Reagan authorized the Alzheimer's Association to establish the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Institute for Research. Dennis Revell, husband of Reagan's late daughter Maureen, sits on the board of the association, while Mrs. Reagan has appeared in public awareness ads, attended fundraisers and written notes of encouragement to the ill.
"When you have an encounter with a disease like Alzheimer's, even when the loved one dies, you don't just dust your hands off and walk away," says Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. "I fully expect that Mrs. Reagan will be involved in advancing research in that disease to help others."
That includes pushing the issue of using embryos for stem cell research, which scientists believe could lead to cures for such illnesses as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes. Only a month ago - breaking ranks with many inside her own party, most notably President Bush - Mrs. Reagan made her first public comments in support of the research at a gala for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
"Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him," she said. "Because of this, I'm determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain."
It is a cause she's championed behind the scenes for years alongside family friend Doug Wick, a Hollywood producer whose 13-year-old daughter is afflicted with juvenile diabetes. When Wick started an advocacy group to lobby Congress in support of the research, Mrs. Reagan offered her services, telling him: "Get me a list of the senators who are up in the air."
During rare breaks from her husband's bedside, she worked the phones and wrote letters, including one sent in April 2001 to President Bush making an emotional plea for his help "in supporting what appears to be the most promising path to a cure."
Months later, Bush committed some federal money toward the research but limited it to stem cell lines created before August 2001. California now has a proposal on its November ballot to provide $3-billion for stem cell research in the state.
That measure, coupled with the ongoing fight to expand the federal research, could compel Mrs. Reagan to become even more engaged, friends say.
"She never pushes herself into public stands . . . but I've got to believe that she has sufficient confidence in what her husband would like her to do now that he's gone," Wallace said. "If anybody can persuade George W. Bush to change his mind, it's probably Nancy Reagan."
"She'll just continue to do what she thinks is right," Wick said. "And she'll do it her way."
For much of the Reagans' 52 years together, "her way" prompted ridicule and reproach.
When Reagan was governor of California, Mrs. Reagan took heat for branding the state mansion a fire hazard and swapping it for a home in the suburbs. During his presidency, she redecorated the White House, replaced china and borrowed designer gowns - as the national economy struggled.
Feminists derided her "stay-at-home, traditional" style, while political insiders dubbed her the "Dragon Lady" for the backroom power she exercised - especially in engineering the departure of advisers she believed damaging to her husband's presidency.
And, of course, there was "the Gaze" - the wide-eyed, adoring stare she'd fix on Reagan every time he stepped up to a podium. She was, it seemed, forever starstruck over her leading man.
"She put her husband first and she took a lot of criticism for that, but it was fine with her as long as she was doing what her husband wanted her to do," Tate says. "And what she used to be criticized for - protecting him - she's now revered for."
Mrs. Reagan still wields power in a quiet but sure manner - whether she's talking up stem cell research, or rejecting efforts to put her husband's likeness on the dime, or refusing permission for the Reagan name to accompany a proposed university.
But it is the frail and drawn, even sometimes lost-looking woman in the public eye over the last week that has some who know Mrs. Reagan concerned about her own health, though she has no known ailments. A breast-cancer survivor, she is approaching 83 years old.
Others see something else entirely: that combination of tenderness and tenacity that symbolized her 52 years with Ronald Reagan - and sustains her now.
"You should never underestimate Mrs. Reagan's core strength," says former White House aide Ken Khachigian. "She is physically frail, but she is also very steely in her strength when it comes to her husband. She was the anchor in his life, and he was the sun around which she revolved."
[Last modified June 12, 2004, 23:37:23]
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