Did Nancy Reagan Win the Cold War? 11 Surprising Facts About the Legendary First Lady

RealClear Staff


Many historians believe Nancy Reagan was the most consequential First Lady in American history, and set the template for all first ladies to follow. Here's a look back at an incredible life.

1. She Was the Bad Cop

Particularly tough-minded on the hiring and firing of key staffers and Cabinet members, Nancy Reagan often played bad cop to Ronald Reagan's good cop, forcing difficult decisions that the famously easygoing chief executive was loath to make. She was widely credited with forcing the departures of Interior Secretary James Watt, Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler and two national security advisors, Richard V. Allen and William Clark.

2. She Had His Chief of Staff Fired

In an unusual example in American history of a First Lady's political influence, she demanded the firing of President Reagan's Chief of Staff, Donald Regan (above). The straw that broke the camel's back: When Regan hung up on her. He was fired soon after.

3. She Urged the President to Negotiate with the USSR

Sensing an opening with the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet Premier after a succession of hard line premiers (Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko) during President Reagan's first years in office, Nancy Reagan began urging Ronald Reagan to change his non-negotiating policy with the USSR and reach out to Gorbachev. Could Nancy Reagan have ended the Cold War?

4. Her Favorite Color: Red

“I always liked red. It’s a picker-upper,” she told W in 2007. “I didn’t give it the name of Reagan Red, but that became its name.”

5. Nancy Davis Dated Big Stars Before Reagan

Rising Hollywood starlet Nancy Davis dated Clark Gable (above), Peter Stack and Peter Lawford before she met actor Ronald Reagan.

6. When She Met Ronald Reagan, He Was a Democrat

Actress Nancy Davis found her name on a list of Communist sympathizers — no small concern in the blacklist era of the late 1940s. Mistaken for another actress named Nancy Davis, she was advised to consult the head of the Screen Actors Guild, one of the most famous liberal unions, headed by Ronald Reagan. The rest is history.

7. Nancy Davis Kept Acting Because They Needed the Money

Nancy Reagan wanted to quit acting when the newly married couple began having children. But because Ronald Regan's acting career had taken a nosedive, she realized they needed the money and kept acting. They appeared in one film together -- 1957's "Hellcats of the Navy" -- where she was billed under her maiden name of Nancy Davis.

8. She Refused to Live in the Governor's Mansion

After Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966, Nancy was branded a snob for refusing to live in the governor’s mansion, a 30-room Victorian relic located on a truck route across from a motel and a gas station. In 1967, the Reagans opted for a Tudor-style house with a pool in the Sacramento suburbs that some of their millionaire friends had purchased for $150,000 and leased back to them.

9. She Was Always Involved in Charity Work

As First Lady, Nancy Reagan's most famous campaign to "Just Say No" to drugs stemmed from her concern with growing drug abuse and addiction in the United States. But as a governor's wife, she championed the Foster Grandparent Program, a cause she would continue to promote in Washington. She took a special interest in Vietnam veterans, hosting emotional dinners for returning prisoners of war and sitting at the bedsides of young soldiers at the veteran’s hospital in California.


10. She 'Rescued the Reagan Presidency'

During the Iran-Contra controversy (in which arms were sold to Iran in order to funnel money to the Contra resistance in Nicaragua), which had some Democrats talking impeachment, Nancy Reagan believed the president needed to take responsibility for the crisis. With a White House speechwriter, she helped shape the address President Reagan ultimately made, in which he acknowledged that the arms trade had been a mistake. Once he made that admission, the headlines quickly faded. The first lady, according to a PBS documentary years later, “rescued the Reagan presidency.”

11. Unfinished Business

She cared for her husband when he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease during the last decade of his life. Nancy Reagan memorably broke from the Republican Party in a speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention urging funding for stem cell research, which many believe will lead to a cure for the disease. At her death, the GOP still had not adopted her recommended policies.



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