Politics

‘I Protect Ronnie from Himself’: How Nancy Reagan Used a Snowstorm to Help Thaw the Cold War

Maneuvering behind the scenes to support her husband was a Nancy Reagan speciality. Once Ronald Reagan became president, Nancy Reagan carefully monitored administration machinations, collecting information and gossip from a vast network of social friends in Washington, New York and California and presidential aides she trusted. Her circle included several longtime Reagan friends from Southern California who served as members of an informal kitchen cabinet for Reagan while he was governor and a presidential candidate. Largely at Nancy’s instigation, the Reagans developed good relations with the Georgetown social set, an eclectic group of journalists, lobbyists and former government pooh-bahs. Many of these people were Democrats, but they welcomed the convivial access to the president and first lady after the standoffish Carter presidency. Even Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, whose paper had endorsed Jimmy Carter in 1980, dined with the Reagans at her Georgetown home soon after Reagan’s win. The two women became friends.

As it happened, Shultz also enjoyed a cordial friendship with Graham. Her mother, Agnes Meyer, had met Shultz during the Kennedy administration when she served on an advisory panel he chaired. When Shultz reappeared in the capital as Nixon’s labor secretary, he developed a warm relationship with Graham, despite the frosty relations between the Nixon White House and the Post as the Watergate scandal unfolded. In cheeky defiance of Nixon, Shultz frequently invited Graham to the White House tennis court, an act of brazen insubordination that both Shultz and Graham clearly relished. “One of the great bonds I have with George is that he invited me to play tennis on the White House court while Nixon was president, an act of extreme courage and even defiance,” she later said. Whether Graham and Nancy Reagan compared notes about Shultz is not known, but their mutual admiration of him was a timely coincidence that may have reinforced the first lady’s attitude toward Shultz.

Nancy Reagan did not attend policy meetings or immerse herself in policy issues. But she was fiercely protective of her husband. After the 1981 assassination attempt, she started consulting an astrologer in hopes of divining when and where it would be safe for the president to travel. She was intently interested in how history would judge her husband, and she had a finely honed instinct for sensing whether officials were selflessly serving her husband or pursuing their own interests. She grew concerned that the administration’s aggressive stance with the Soviet Union would prevent Reagan from accomplishing anything positive as a cold war president. She wanted, as she later said, to encourage “Ronnie to consider a more conciliatory relationship with the Soviet Union.” She added, “For years it had troubled me that my husband was always being portrayed by his opponents as a warmonger, simply because he believed, quite properly, in strengthening our defenses.”

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“Nancy Reagan was just keeping track of everything that was going on with respect to Ronnie — who was undermining him, who was supporting him,” said Richard Helms, a friend of the Reagans who had served as director of the CIA. She distrusted Haig, Reagan’s previous Secretay of State, from the start, thought he was more interested in amassing power and controlling foreign policy than in supporting the president. “I never liked Haig,” she told Vanity Fair years later. She also did not like Clark. “Bill Clark, who came in in 1981 as deputy secretary of state, was another bad choice, in my opinion. I didn’t think he was qualified for the job — or for his subsequent position as national security adviser. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way; he embarrassed himself in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he couldn’t name the prime minister of Zimbabwe. Clark had been in Ronnie’s administration in Sacramento, but even then I had never really gotten along with him. He struck me as a user — especially when he traveled around the country claiming he represented Ronnie, which usually wasn’t true. I spoke to Ronnie about him, but Ronnie liked him, so he stayed around longer than I would have liked.”

She once bluntly described how she perceived her role to Brian Mulroney, the Canadian prime minister: “I protect Ronnie from himself. You know, he has a big Irish heart. He trusts everybody and he doesn’t see when he’s being blindsided, or when people are acting out of motives that are less than noble. And he never acts upon it once he does. I do.” Though Shultz did not know Nancy Reagan well when he became secretary of state, he did understand that she exercised outsize influence at the White House. “If you have any intelligence, you don’t make an enemy of the first lady, particularly Nancy Reagan, because she was so strong,” he said.

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“If someone were to say, ‘Who’s the biggest influence on Ronald Reagan?,’ it would be Nancy, without a doubt,” Shultz said. “I think substantively she wanted constructive outcomes. She saw Reagan as a person who could accomplish things.”

Over time, he artfully cultivated his relationship with her. “George was good at creating these kind of indispensable connections,” said Colin Powell. Shultz and Nancy Reagan developed a bantering camaraderie about his seat assignments at state dinners. She recalled, “He was always trying to do the seating chart at our State Dinners so he could sit next to the prettiest girl in the room! At every State Dinner, George would take me aside and remind me that I promised to sit him next to the ‘glamour girl’ of the evening. At one such dinner, he was in ‘seventh heaven’ to have the opportunity to dance with Ginger Rogers.” Years later, he still treasured a signed and inscribed photo of Rogers dancing with him: “What a joy this was for me! You know, for the first two minutes I could swear I was dancing with Fred! Here’s to another round sometime. My warmest regards, Ginger.” Rogers and Fred Astaire famously costarred and danced together in a series of musical movies filmed in the 1930s. Shultz’s eyes sparkled decades later when he recalled the dinners. “Nancy Reagan put on the most elegant White House dinners. I doubt anyone has done it as well. She always fixed me up with a Hollywood starlet as my dinner partner.” At one dinner with a high-ranking Chinese official that the president could not attend due to illness, Shultz got to dance with Nancy. She sent him a photo of the moment with the inscription, “Dear George, my turn.”

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