'The Triumph of Nancy Reagan': Karen Tumulty keenly charts first lady's political savvy

Matt Damsker
·4 min read

Karen Tumulty calls her new book “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan” (Simon & Schuster, 672 pp., ★★★★ stars out of four), against the grain of pop narrative. How many of us would just as soon consign the late first lady – helpmeet and soulmate of the 40th U.S. president, Ronald Reagan – to the mists of the un-woke 1980s? Indeed, in this era of female White House mold-breakers, how does the late first lady emerge as a role model?

Her triumph, after all, was hardly a feminist one. Too easily dismissed as a shallow California fashionista, she seemed to define herself as a woman devoted to the patriarchy, at first desperate for the approval of her physician stepfather, then embracing the traditional wife-and-mother role with a conservative icon. Looking back, the biggest headline she seemed to make was a mortifying revelation about her reliance on astrology.

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But Tumulty, The Washington Post’s keen political columnist, has produced a thorough, compelling biography that underscores what was always hidden in plain sight. Her Nancy is a driven, savvy, indomitable operative, a dogged domestic diplomat on behalf of her affable yet oddly remote ideologue of a husband. “While she had the image of a haughty socialite,” writes Tumulty, “the first lady could be charming and, truth be told, more engaging company than her husband.”

Though he set in motion the “Reagan Revolution” that remains the through-line of Republican dogma – smaller government, less regulation, rolling back the welfare state and outspending the Russians on defense to the point of bankrupting our Cold War enemy – it was Nancy who marshaled what Tumulty calls “the power of intimacy” unlike any first lady.

“The Triumph of Nancy Reagan," by Karen Tumulty.
“The Triumph of Nancy Reagan," by Karen Tumulty.

Indeed, the marriage was strong, a love story very much on its own terms. Empowered by a husband who trusted no one above her, Nancy steered her Ronnie clear of bad PR and rode herd on his advisers, banishing abrasive right-wingers to soften Reagan’s rhetoric. She hated his use of the phrase “evil empire” to describe the Soviet Union and, as Tumulty shows, encouraged a warm relationship with its liberalizing leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (despite a bitter first lady rivalry with Gorbachev’s imperious wife, Raisa).

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Just as importantly, she led on damage control during the Iran-Contra scandal that threatened her husband's presidency. Yet Tumulty makes clear enough that neither she nor her husband was quite up to the compassionate challenge of the AIDS epidemic, while Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign against drugs is eternally lampooned. Her dependence on prescription drugs – she was traumatized by the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan – didn’t help her credibility.

Still, she was the rock on which Ronald Reagan built his image as family man and All-American guy – despite his checkered early days as a middling movie star and corporate pitchman (he would even be the first divorced president, after a troubled marriage to actress Jane Wyman). If anything, the first sections of this book read liked a familiar Hollywood biography: Nancy is born Anne Frances Robbins in 1921 New York. Her feckless father soon departs, while her mother, Edith “Edie” Luckett, is a mostly absent fame-seeker who manages a small-time stage career.

Reporter and author Karen Tumulty.
Reporter and author Karen Tumulty.

Edie eventually marries a prominent Chicago neurosurgeon, Loyal Davis, whom Nancy idolizes. She blooms proudly as Nancy Davis, attends Smith College, and despite modest talent does some acting. Her socially adept mother has connections with major stars such as Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, and soon Nancy goes West, signs on with MGM Studios and doesn’t quite avoid the casting couch in the course of making a few films.

But she has a career – and the determination to garner her stepdad’s respect. Her initial relationship with the solitary, insecure Ronald is on and off, yet the couple become inseparable, and the mooning letters they write each other make clear the co-dependence. Movieland romance turns into a high-stakes partnership as Ronnie wins the governorship of California in 1967.

And the rest, folks, is – really, truly – history.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nancy Reagan: Karen Tumulty's bio charts first lady's political savvy