- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

Nancy Reagan has a birthday today. It’s hardly happy — her first in more than a half-century without her beloved husband, and it comes just a month after he died.

Surely friends and family will be with her. Nonetheless it is overshadowed by the loneliness and sadness of missing the one person she wishes more than anything could still be at her side, even for just a minute more.

For a decade Nancy Reagan held her breath as her husband slipped away. Now she can breathe again — perhaps even a sigh of relief that their nightmare is over. Some have said she “put her life on hold.” Not true. Ronald Reagan was her life, and the last 10 years found her doing what she has always done — taking care of him.

For that and so much more, she is truly a national treasure. When no one else would, she traveled the world talking about the dangers of drug abuse, and saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives. She brought grace, beauty and humor to the White House. Robbed of a well-deserved leisurely retirement, she became the embodiment of a loving, devoted spouse and caregiver. And when the time finally came, she carried herself with remarkable dignity and strength in the harsh glare of the public spotlight, literally from coast to coast, when she was overwhelmed with grief at losing her soul mate.

Soon she will decide what the next chapter will be. Certainly a priority will be preserving her husband’s legacy, through support of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. A world renowned center for tourists and scholars alike, the former president’s final resting place, with its stunning vistas, will soon showcase Air Force One, Marine One and a presidential limousine. Mrs. Reagan is mobbed by fans every time she appears at the Library.

The big question on most people’s minds is whether she will be an outspoken advocate for stem cell research. That would clearly put her at odds with the current administration and some conservatives, but so be it. Nancy Reagan has never backed away from a fight — especially when she is right. No one knows better than she about the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease on patients and families. She also knows the power of her voice in pushing for a cause.

A doctor’s daughter, she and her husband have a long track record of increasing public awareness of diseases that have afflicted them — so much so that President Reagan once good-naturedly complained about being “tired of seeing my rear end on national TV.” But he fully understood the importance of calling attention to ways to prevent colon cancer, and was delighted when he learned about the many people who signed up for colonoscopies as a result of the publicity surrounding his case. Similarly, Nancy Reagan insisted on being fully open about her breast cancer and mastectomy. Both Reagans were strong public advocates of staying out of the sun or, if that was unavoidable, of wearing maximum strength sunscreens. Pity the staffer who showed up at a meeting with a sunburn.

The ultimate example of their belief in sharing their personal medical issues for the benefit of others was President Reagan’s letter announcing he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He did not have to do that. He could have simply retired and faded from public view. But the Reagans understood that by going public with their news, they would bring much-needed attention to a disease that affects so many families, thereby helping them cope, and hopefully, stimulating interest in finding a cure, as well.

Whether she chooses to be publicly active on behalf of stem-cell research or continue her work “behind the scenes,” Nancy Reagan will be a powerful force whose support can only help. No one would blame her for choosing the latter course.

She has given a lifetime of service to her state, country and husband. The toll of the last 10 years is immeasurable. Some of her friends and supporters urge her to relax and enjoy her life — she is more than entitled to that. But if I had to bet, I would say that sooner or later, we’ll hear from her. I sure hope so.

Mark D. Weinberg, was on the Reagan 1980 presidential campaign staff; served in the Reagan White House as a special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary; and was public affairs director for former President and Mrs. Reagan. He is a director of national public relations for Deloitte & Touche U.S.A. LLP in New York City.

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