Nancy Reagan, Guardian of a Legacy

Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan” is the latest Reagan book written by Craig Shirley, a Republican political consultant-turned-historian. His previous two Reagan books were detailed accounts of the 1976 and 1980 campaigns. In this one, the star of the show is mostly off-stage: Aside from occasional flashbacks, the action takes place in the week after Reagan’s 2004 death.

Its main theme is the disconnect between how elites saw Reagan and how the man and his presidency were viewed by rank-and-file Americans. I interviewed Shirley, an occasional contributor to RealClearPolitics, on his way to California for Nancy Reagan’s funeral.

Craig, let’s get this question out of the way: The preface to this book was written by Reagan biographer and RCP West Coast columnist Lou Cannon. Why?

Simple. Lou is first among equals. Your dad set a standard no one will meet, but all celebrate. Plus, I deeply admire Lou. We’ve been friends for more years than we like to think, but over time, that friendship and mutual respect has only deepened. One hundred years from now, when historians want to know about Ronald Reagan, they will go first to Lou’s books. Then, hopefully, mine too. Other books, like Bill O’Reilly’s, will be used to start fires.

The opening of this book is hair-raising: I’m not talking about Reagan’s death. I mean when you reprise some of the ugly things said by many Democrats—and even a few Republicans—when Reagan died. You name names. Who offended you the most?

Where do I begin? The Washington establishment, led by the Style section and editorial pages of The Washington Post, were awful to Reagan. So was the New York Times, to the point of being unprofessional. Paul Krugman was especially despicable, going so far as to making things up about Reagan. David Broder was magnificent—as were Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi. Surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal was also reserved in some of its commentary and editorials about Reagan. But that is easily explained; the barons of Wall Street were always chary about the populist Reagan and he was equally standoffish about them. They’d supported Ford over Reagan in 1976 and, take your pick: George Bush, John Connally and Howard Baker over Reagan in 1980. Reagan never bailed out Wall Street.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were gracious, as was the entire Bush clan, the Fords, the Cheneys and the many children of presidents and first ladies. Bill Clinton nodded off during the ceremonies and Hillary Clinton had a scowl on her face the entire time.

Al Felzenberg, in a tribute to Nancy Reagan in the Weekly Standard this week, recalled Nancy saying, “My life did not begin until I met Ronnie.” And that Reagan himself once said of Nancy: “I cannot imagine life without her.” So it was a real love story. In researching this book what surprised you most about how Nancy handled Reagan’s death?

With grace, terrible grieving, but the knowledge that he was no longer in pain. She was with him at the very end, as his breathing shallowed, his pulse grew fainter, his eyes suddenly opened wide. They’d been closed for three weeks. He opened them and they were clear and blue and sharp, not hazy. He looked right at her, with recognition. And he then passed away. Weeping, Mrs. Reagan said, “That’s the greatest gift you could have given me.”

She was stoic and strong the entire week of the funeral, only crying in public at the end, at the graveside in Simi [Valley] as the commander of the USS Reagan, Adm. James Symonds, handed her the flag which had been placed over his coffin and whispered the words so many other widows of fallen heroes had heard, “Mrs. Reagan, on behalf of a grateful nation…”

There has been a lengthy reevaluation of Nancy Reagan. Excoriated by much of the media in Sacramento and in Washington, she won over her former critics with how bravely she handled her husband’s long death struggle with Alzheimer’s. Revisionist historians, some of them feminists, have in recent years lauded Nancy for having a moderating influence on the Reagan presidency, too, in areas ranging from dealing with the AIDS crisis to Soviet relations. Is there a consensus forming among presidency scholars about her tenure as first lady?

Not yet. Some are foolishly saying she somehow won the Cold War. She had a deft hand, but confined it mostly to politics and personnel, not policy. She had a simple rule. You were there to help Ronnie and if you weren’t, changes had to be made.

How about Reagan himself? In the light of the records of his successors, have the academics who so relentlessly criticized Reagan relented in their judgments?

Some have, but many haven’t. And some have become harsher and more biased. I’ve noticed an uptick in the past several years of inaccurate stories and columns about the Reagans. We push back when we can, but it takes a lot of time. What’s that old adage: “A lie can make its way around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on”? Still, as Shakespeare said, the truth will come to light. And the truth about Ronald and Nancy Reagan is coming to light.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Because we can no longer trust liberals and hacks to record history accurately. Can you imagine Bill O’Reilly or Evan Thomas or Kitty Kelley writing this book? We can’t trust the books editors at the Weekly Standard or The Washington Post to determine what is important and what is not important.

It’s your third Reagan book; what was the biggest surprise?

How kind many liberals were and how harsh some conservatives were. Ralph Reed was especially hard on the Reagan legacy. But some liberals, such as Harry Reid, were very kind. Many people turned out in Simi Valley, along California Highway 101, in Washington— hundreds of thousands of people viewed the bier and wept. Even Mikhail Gorbachev cried!

How will you remember Nancy Reagan?

With great fondness. She took a real interest in my books. From the beginning, she told the Reagan Library to open up sealed files and boxes for me to go through exclusively, even though they had not yet been catalogued. I would send her flowers for her birthday and she’d write me a note. I’d speak at the library and she’d send me a note. I’d send her books and she’d send me a note.

My wife, Zorine, and I saw her at the 10th anniversary of Reagan’s passing. Lou and I had participated in a panel with several other Reagan scholars and then there was a wreath-laying at Reagan’s tomb. Afterwards, Zorine and I were invited to see Mrs. Reagan off. She was in a wheelchair, but the eyes were blue and bright, there was a joy in her smile and when I bent down to wish her well, she patted my hand and said, “Thank you for all you are doing for Ronnie’s legacy.” Then she was wheeled onto the elevator and was gone. I think Zorine and I choked up a bit.

The Reagans’ friend Jimmy Stewart once ruminated that if Ronald Reagan had met Nancy Davis before he married Jane Wyman, Reagan never would have gone into politics. “She would have seen to it that he got all the best parts,” he said, “won three or four Oscars and been a real star.” It’s a nice line, but I wonder if Stewart was kidding on the square.

Oh, I don’t know. The arc of his career generally went up after he met her. After Hollywood, there was the General Electric speaking tour, his columns and radio broadcasts, the California governorship and the presidency. Now, he is beloved and historians regard him as one of America’s greatest presidents. I doubt he would have reached such heights without her. One thing is for sure: Reagan himself believed he never would have done all that he did without Nancy.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.