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Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., calls Mrs. Reagan “one of the most influential first ladies in modern times.”

“A lot of the people who were not following politics didn’t believe she was [influential], but people who had known Reagan and studied his governing knew Nancy was a power broker,” Mr. Watson said.

“In some ways, I’ve always felt that each first lady makes the next one possible,” he added. “And I think [Mrs. Reagan] made Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama a little more possible. Both are Ivy League lawyers who are seen as full political and policy partners” with their presidential spouses.

Mr. Watson said Mrs. Reagan deserves much credit for starting an open conversation about Alzheimer’s disease, the affliction that clouded the last decade of her husband’s life. Her stoicism in handling Reagan’s death in 2004 “brought the issue into every dining room and every office water-cooler discussion,” he said.

“She really displayed grace under pressure. It’s such a tough job for a loved one dealing with it, and I absolutely do think part of her legacy is the Alzheimer’s conversation.”

Mr. Watson also praised Mrs. Reagan, now 89, as “a legacy-shaper and advocate for her husband.”

“All presidents are concerned about legacies when they leave office. They invite historians to meet with them, their proxies go on talk shows. They write books to make their case,” Mr. Watson said. “The fact that Reagan was stricken with [Alzheimer’s] so early after leaving the White House, he never got the chance to do that. What we have seen with Nancy is that she has stepped up, consistently and quietly reaching out to his inner circle to make the case for her husband’s legacy.

“I think she was more ambitious than he was. And I think in a lot of ways, she is even more relevant today than she was a few years ago.”