- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2016

To those of us who loved, worked for or campaigned for Ronald Reagan, the 1970s and ‘80s don’t seem so long ago, though it was 40 years ago that he challenged an incumbent president for his party’s presidential nomination, 36 years since he and his wife Nancy moved into the White House themselves, and 12 years since he was laid to rest in his native California. I first realized how long ago that was when some years ago at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, we presented our “Ronald Reagan Award” to a young woman activist who didn’t know she would be receiving it and, therefore, hadn’t had time to prepare any remarks. She made her way to the microphone, hesitated for a moment and informed the crowd that her “connection” to the late president was that she had been born in January 1981 as he was being sworn in as our 40th president.

It struck me then that a lot of time had passed since what is now known as the Reagan Era. That fact struck me again last weekend with the news that Nancy Reagan had died and that she was 94 years old this year. Without her, one wonders whether there would have been a Reagan presidency or, if so, whether many of us would remember the Reagan Era with such fondness. Nancy Reagan, after all, was not just the Gipper’s wife, but his life partner, his most loyal fan and fiercest defender. His critics and hers liked to make fun of the way she gazed at him with what seemed like practiced fascination as he spoke. They failed to realize that what they were witnessing was neither practiced nor fascination, but a look of love and devotion the like of which is only rarely seen in an increasingly cynical age.

She was her Ronnie’s partner, but it was not the sort of partnership that marked the professional partnership of the Clintons and so many other politicians. It was a partnership based on love and it consumed both of them. If there was ever a devoted couple, it was Ronald and Nancy Reagan. She was always supportive and had a keen eye for those who flocked to his cause out of principle as opposed to those she believed saw him as their “main chance.” Politicians are surrounded by both and it is often difficult to tell which is which, but Nancy Reagan had a sometimes uncanny ability to tell the phonies from true loyalists. Those who didn’t pass muster or who she believed were in some way hurting rather than helping her husband, found themselves in trouble and many feared the day when her gaze might fall on them.

Most famously, of course, was her uncharacteristic campaign to get her husband to dump Chief of Staff Don Regan, who she thought was more interested in himself than in the president and who was, in her opinion, making a mess of the reaction to what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. It was uncharacteristic of Nancy because it became public. She usually worked on what she saw as her husband’s behalf behind the scenes. But when the president, who avoided hard personnel decisions whenever possible, balked at firing his chief of staff, Mrs. Reagan let her friends leak anti-Regan material to the press, and even enlisted Democratic power broker Bob Strauss to go to Reagan to plead the case.

Eventually, of course, it worked. The president replaced Regan and brought in former Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker. The change was needed, worked and proved once again that Nancy was not only her president’s closest but perhaps most astute adviser.

She was quite a lady, and if anyone doubted her complete devotion to her husband or her compassion, she dispelled those doubts in the years after Mr. Reagan announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Until his death, six years later, Nancy Reagan remained at her husband’s side as his chief caregiver — even after the stage when he could no longer recognize her. Nancy was there for him from the time they first met in Hollywood, through his years as governor and as president. She was there for him in retirement and until the very end.

Some years after his passing, she told an interviewer that she spent a lot of time at the Reagan Library because she felt close to him there. After admitting to the Rev. Billy Graham how much she missed him, told him that if he could assure her that someday she would be with him again, it would be “OK.” He assured her that she would be, and as the end approached last weekend, anyone who knew either of them had to realize that as she closed her eyes for the last time, she knew that day had come.

⦁ David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.

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