What Nancy Reagan's Biographer Learned in Her 5 Years of Research: She Was 'Long Overdue for a Reassessment'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Virginia Chamlee
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Bettmann/Getty From left: Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan in 1988

Throughout and after her husband's presidency, Nancy Reagan came to be known as a fierce and devoted ally to her husband, Ronald Reagan, as well as someone with a reputation for sometimes being woefully out of touch.

But when she was first introduced to the American public, Mrs. Reagan wanted to be most known as a wife.

Photos of her gazing lovingly at her husband came to define her first ladyship, with critics arguing that the adoration appeared put-on or exaggerated.

But the gaze, says Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty, was always real.

Tumulty began researching the former first lady in 2016, when she was approached by her publisher with an idea for a book: a definitive biography of the wife of the 40th president.

That book, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, was released this week.

"At that point, I really didn't know anything about Nancy Reagan beyond the caricatures, but she had always struck me as an incredibly complex person," Tumulty tells PEOPLE.

Her biography explores both Mrs. Reagan's dedication to her husband and her role in his administration, which is altogether different from what America had seen before — or since — from a first lady.

RELATED: Behind 'the Collateral Heartbreak' and Intense Devotion of the Reagans' Decades-Long Romance

Bettmann/Getty From left: Ronald Reagan with daughter Patti and wife Nancy Reagan

Though much of the public grew to hold her in high regard, particularly after her husband's 1994 diagnosis with Alzheimer's, Mrs. Reagan's entry in Washington was mired in controversy.

Her penchant for borrowing (and never returning) designer dresses and well-publicized desire to add to the White House china collection lead many to deem her "Queen Nancy."

Her seeming desire to remain in her husband's shadow — in a 1975 interview, she famously said her job was "being Mrs. Ronald Reagan" — caused others to brand her as old-fashioned.

But the real Nancy Reagan was a powerful force in her husband's administration, serving as a political adviser and gate-keeper; and where her husband was often overly optimistic, she was a shrewd judge of people and adept at knowing how to confront a crisis.

In Tumulty's view, she was "long overdue for a re-assessment."

The book doesn't flinch from Mrs. Reagan's demons, including her complicated relationship with her children or the irony of her anti-drug crusade. As Tumulty writes in Triumph, the former first lady relied at times on prescription medications, and her daughter has accused her of abusing them.

Tumulty does cast Mrs. Reagan in something of a new light, though. While she may have played second fiddle publicly to her "Ronnie," she was a force with which to be reckoned behind the scenes.

She played a key role, for instance, in a scandal that would nearly overtake her husband's political career: the Iran-Contra affair.

After it was revealed that the U.S. had sold arms to Iran (which in turn armed an anti-government group in Nicaragua) as a means of negotiating for the release of hostages, it was the first lady who persuaded her husband to confront the issue head-on with an apology to the American people.

She had sway in other ways, too, with late Secretary of State George Shultz telling Tumulty that — indeed — she was instrumental in helping to end the Cold War.

Asked if she bore comparison to any other first lady in U.S. history, Tumulty is unequivocal: "Absolutely not."

"Nancy was really the perfect partner ... because of the very singular figure that Ronald Reagan was," Tumulty says. "He really was a loner and was not close to any other person in the world other than Nancy. Bill Clinton, LBJ —these are people that have these deep, deep relationships with other people. Ronald Reagan doesn't."

As a result, she continues, Mrs. Reagan was "called upon to play a very different role than what we normally see in first ladies."

For many in the White House during the administration, Mrs. Reagan could be a pain. She made daily calls to many of her husband's aides and (in)famously turned to an astrologer to help craft his travel schedule.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum From left: President Reagan and Nancy Reagan kissing at Blair House

But those who grew to rely on her quickly realized that she was a powerful ally.

"I do think that the people who made the biggest mistakes with her were those who underestimated her," Tumulty says.

That includes many other Americans, who had mixed feelings about her in the early years of the Reagans' stint in the White House.

According to the Roper Center, her favorability rating was 57 percent after her initial year as first lady, then rose 71 percent following her husband's landslide reelection and coinciding with her anti-drug campaign.

But it was when she became a caretaker to her husband that the country began viewing her in an entirely new light.

President Reagan announced his diagnosis in a Nov. 5, 1994, handwritten letter addressed to the public.

"Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden," he wrote. "I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage."

Ronald Reagan Presidental Library/Getty Images From left: Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan

In a 1999 interview with C-SPAN, resurfaced by Tumulty in her book, Mrs. Reagan shed light on what that burden was really like, telling the network founder Brian Lamb: "It is probably the worst disease you could ever have." She confirmed then that she could no longer have a conversation of value with her husband.

It would be several more years before he died from disease, in 2004.

As Tumulty explains, the years that came between were likely Mrs. Reagan's "finest."

"I do think it's poignant that, really her finest hour and the point at which the country begins to recognize the strength of her character is only after her husband is incapacitated and she becomes his caregiver and the caretaker of his legacy," the author says. "That's the point at which everyone realizes, 'Oh, wait, the gaze was real. The feelings were real.' It was such a revelatory journey for me."