Nancy Reagan proved an extremely controversial first lady. Critics attacked her for the glamour and mocked the first lady’s accidental foray into the drug war. Her influence and over protectiveness angered the president’s opponents. Mrs. Reagan’s first concern as first lady was her husband. That fact underscored her entire tenure and further angered critics. During the president’s two terms, Nancy Reagan proved a lightning rod for critics, but popular amongst the people.
Every generation or so the White House needs renovation. Many presidents ignore the mansion’s condition until it falls into extreme disrepair. When the Reagans entered the residence, it had been nearly 30 years since it underwent extensive upgrades and repairs. The family living area badly needed renovation. The walls cracked, paint peeled, and floors looked rotted. Normally, the first family appeals to Congress for renovation funds. Mrs. Reagan decided to appeal for private donations. With private help, the first lady modernized and upgraded the second and third floors, and antiquated pipes.
The renovations seemed to annoy President Reagan’s opponents. Mrs. Reagan’s embrace of glamour set them over the edge. Admirers compared her style to Jackie Kennedy. This comparison further angered her detractors. They complained that she spent too much and did not have the right to dress as she liked. The critics also complained about the Reagans’ monarchical tendencies when it came to elegance. When reporters discovered she accepted clothing gifts, a firestorm ensued. Eventually, she agreed to not accept the gifts any longer. In 1992, the IRS determined the Reagans failed to report $3 million in fashion gifts on their tax returns.
As she struggled with the attacks on her clothes and the president suffered low poll ratings due to a severe recession, Nancy Reagan accidentally embarked on an anti-drug campaign. A child asked her what to do if they were offered drugs. Reagan replied, “Just say no.” The media seized on the message because it was direct and to the point. “Just say no” became a 1980s catch phrase. The phrase took on a life of its own and the first lady adopted it in her own anti-drug campaign. Once again, the critics eviscerated her. This time, they complained the phrase was overly simplistic and did not address the underlying issues related to drug addiction. However, she brought new emphasis and publicity to the drug problem. The new emphasis led to tougher drug laws and the creation of organizations designed to educate people about the dangers of drug use.
The drug war was not the only area the first lady influenced. Her role in the White House fell under scrutiny as the Reagan Administration wore on. As the economy improved, the president’s poll numbers increased, and administration critics intensified their attacks on the first lady. They could no longer attack the president, so they targeted his wife. They mocked “the look” she gave the president during his speeches, her fashion, “Just Say No”, and her influence.
After the 1981 assassination attempt, Nancy Reagan became more assertive toward White House staff. She worried about her husband’s safety when he left. To help cope, the first lady consulted an astrologer. The astrologer, Joan Quigley, examined charts to determine which days were safe for the president to travel. Mrs. Reagan developed a color-coded scheme for scheduling. This drove Chief of Staff Donald Regan crazy leading to friction and an eventual power struggle. The power struggle ended when Regan hung up on the first lady during an exchange over scheduling. In response, the president fired his chief of staff. Meanwhile, the public seemed to enjoy the fact the first lady consulted an astrologer. This made her more accessible to the masses and gave some a good chuckle. On the other hand, the revelations reinforced the image of Nancy Reagan as the true power in the White House. Administration opponents continued their assaults on her until her husband left office and beyond.
President Reagan left office with a 68% approval rating. His wife’s approval stood at 56%. The discrepancy is tied directly to the attacks on her. However, she proved more popular than Roslyn Carter and Hillary Rodham Clinton, but not as popular as Betty Ford or Barbara Bush. Most Americans saw the attacks as political and nonsensical. After leaving office, she remained protective of her husband. In 1994, he admitted to suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In their last decade together, Mrs. Reagan had to suffer the “long goodbye” many Alzheimer’s families experience. Since his death, the former first lady has lobbied for stem cell research in the hopes it could result in a cure.
Nancy Reagan vociferously defended her husband and became the target of administration critics. Administration opponents attacked her from almost day one and centered their assaults on the Reagan presidency around the first lady. As Reagan grew more popular, the first lady became a more inviting target. Her influence and protective nature drove critics crazy, but the public at large supported Nancy Reagan.