Nancy Reagan’s unwavering devotion to her husband, President Ronald Reagan, was among her most well-known qualities.
But she was more than a partner, a spouse and a steadfast caregiver to her husband after he was afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease. In the aftermath of her death on Sunday, friends and former colleagues spoke of a legacy that is all her own: one of grace, kindness and loyalty to those she loved. They said she made her husband better and, with that, she made the country better.
William Bennett, who served as secretary of education under Reagan, spent much of Sunday afternoon fielding calls from reporters after news broke of Nancy Reagan’s death at 94 from congestive heart failure. But he said there was someone in his house who could better describe her as a friend. Then, he handed the phone to his wife, Elayne.
Elayne Bennett was one of the “Cabinet Wives” – the spouses of top-ranking members of the Reagan administration. She said that she was 36 years old at the time and was the youngest wife of the group. She felt that she had to be “on her toes” in the presence of the first lady, but soon, that anxiousness faded.
“She was very much in control and, of course, beautiful,” Elayne Bennett said. “I was in awe of her. She was so lovely to me. She put me at ease. She went out of her way to be kind.”
In 1986, Bennett said she attended a luncheon held at the residence of Barbara Bush. She remembers it being a cold and dreary day, and she was seated next to Nancy Reagan.
“I was just very surprised and delighted,” she said. “But also I remember a bit thinking, ‘Oh gosh, what will I talk about?’ “
But Nancy Reagan was adept at friendly small talk, and Bennett remembers pleasantly chatting about the warm Washington springtime and soon-to-be blossoming cherry trees.
Nancy Reagan often encouraged the wives to take on their own platforms and to use their access for the greater good, Bennett said. Bennett started her own foundation, the Best Friends Foundation, and credits Nancy Reagan’s “real zeal” for youth education.
Other friends recalled Nancy Reagan’s ability to share candid feedback with her husband during his presidency.
Robert Higdon started working for the Reagans in 1985 and led fundraising efforts for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation.
Higdon said Nancy Reagan was the only person who could approach the president without toning down a message. She lunched around town, listened to friends and foes and conveyed their opinions to Reagan with honesty, he said.
“We’ve all heard the story described as a love affair,” Higdon said. “She very much looked after her husband. When one is in a political office, you’re isolated to some degree. Everything is filtered. One of her best abilities as a partner was to not filter things.”
Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, remembers Nancy Reagan as someone who truly believed that “the art of governing required compromise” and relied upon relationship building.
“She had other perspectives that she gathered around town and on the phone. She was a listener. She would share those judgments with him,” he said. “She was focused on making her husband the best he could be.”
As a member of the library board, Higdon said he typically stayed at Nancy Reagan’s home whenever he traveled to California for business trips. His most recent visit was last spring.
“Up until the day she died, she was engaged and laughing and busy with friends,” he said. “She had a very full life, but she missed him terribly. I had never seen anything like that in my life.”
He paused and added: “She’s with him.”
Washington Post publisher and chief executive Frederick Ryan Jr., echoed those sentiments. Ryan, who serves as the chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, said that the former first lady’s contributions to Reagan’s presidency may never be fully understood or appreciated.
“The Ronald and Nancy Reagan relationship was a great American love story,” he said. “Although he’s been gone for over 10 years, it never did get easier for her, I know that. Now, she’s where she wanted to be since the day that she lost him.”
Reagan historian Craig Shirley said that Nancy Reagan’s post-White House years, particularly those spent as a caregiver for her ailing husband, revealed her true strength.
“Her greatest role may have been when he was afflicted,” he said, noting her efforts to raise funds for Alzheimer’s and stem-cell research. “She was almost giving a part of her life to him in order to will him back.”
Shirley said that she did so with “grace and with motivation and with a thoroughness,” all driven by a greater cause.
“Their marriage is really a marriage for the ages,” Shirley said. “It rivals the devotion of the Washingtons and the Adams.”