I was not even a teenager during the whole Camelot Presidency of John F. Kennedy. To be totally honest, I knew very little about what was going on in Washington and cared even less. I do remember bits and pieces of Jackie’s notoriety. But, as the years passed and the media exposed more and more of the “it factor” that she definitely possessed, I followed her life with not much of an opinion one way or the other.
Imagine my surprise when I heard of her death and I realized that tears were streaking my cheeks. I was unexplainably truly moved. Where in the world did that reaction come from?
When we lost another First Lady, Betty Ford I lamented, fondly, the passing of one “gutsy broad.” And when I just heard the news that Nancy Reagan died, what immediately came to mind was: "Finally, she is with her beloved Ronnie."
I started thinking about my very different reaction to the passing of these three very different First Ladies and the changing role of First Lady.
What had Jackie actually done as First Lady? She famously redecorated the White House. She elevated fashion designers from having only notoriety among the elite to true celebrity status. She and her young family brought vibrancy to the White House and the country. And, she had “it;” that indescribable quality that can’t be learned or nurtured or even defined.
Betty Ford, on the other hand, not only changed but shattered the unspoken, strenuously adhered to rules traditionally imposed upon political wives. She altered the role of First Lady and dramatically changed our society as well. She, for the first time, was a First Lady willing to expose her frailty. She spoke openly about her illnesses and even her addictions. I vividly remember thinking at the time, “What, is she nuts?” She tirelessly championed causes and raised funds for and helped to build the now famous Betty Ford Clinic for the treatment of addiction.
So, what will Nancy Reagan’s legacy be?
According to Lou Cannon, journalist, presidential biographer and author of five books dealing with Ronald Reagan; “Mrs. Reagan battled with reporters, terrified aides and Cabinet members, and became a convenient target for partisan critics of her husband’s policies.”
She was her Ronnie’s closest advisor, most staunch supporter and protector of his image. Having grown up with an alcoholic father who lost job after job, Reagan could not bring himself to fire anyone — so Nancy did it. Abhorring the hypocrisy of politicians who said terrible things about her husband on the floor then socialized with them at night as if nothing had happened, she made it her business to know everything about her husband’s “enemies.”
And then there was “the gaze.” You know, that much-maligned look of adoration she so often cast upon her man. Critics called it all an act, but it was genuine.
Devotion to and love for her husband; I think she would like that legacy.