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Saturday, December 15 , 2018, 6:46 pm | Fair 56º


Jamie Stiehm: Reflecting on Nancy Reagan, and Savvy White House Wives

Former first lady Nancy Reagan was laid to rest next to her husband Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library in Simi Valley, leading to a hard look at White House walls, with tales they tell. For we don’t know the better half of it.

President Ronald Reagan was uxorious, but not alone in being excessively fond of his wife. By my count, seven presidents adored their wives and made a show of it. If you add Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, grief-stricken widowers, a trend becomes visible.

Among these pairs are inseparable Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn, ardent Woodrow Wilson and wife Edith, shrewd Dolley and James Madison, rugged George W. Bush and sweet-as-pie wife Laura, and John Adams and wife Abigail, avid pen pals.

Not on my list: the Eisenhowers with Mamie in her pink bedroom while Ike played golf. Michelle and Barack Obama, not so much. Pat and Richard Nixon? Never.

Those who knew the Reagans well say the genial actor’s rise never would have happened without Nancy’s vigilant counsel. They were each other’s everything.

Yet Nancy Reagan, like other first ladies, gets classified by a crusade or a female characteristic — a fashion maven with a “gaze.” Her husband gets lionized by history; she gets clawed.

Many first ladies go to their graves with a bad rap. A lover of elegance, Mary Lincoln suffered the same as Nancy Reagan — only worse — because she was also classified as crazy. Her husband’s law partner in Springfield, Ill., started the smear, just as Reagan’s aides resented Nancy’s vicarious power.

President Abraham Lincoln was made of rough prairie stuff at 30. Springfield belle Mary Todd, sassy yet refined, was schooled in politics from her family. She knew French and poetry.

Mary was the catch in their match. The striving Lincoln was smitten. At the White House years later, Lincoln told someone he had never fallen out of love. The Lincolns were close, whatever “​Lincolnistas” say.

Mary’s hardheaded advice helped “Mr. Lincoln” ascend in Springfield circles. As first lady, her sparkling parties showed the nation still open for business as the Civil War raged.

Lucky for Lincoln, Mary didn’t marry a rival suitor — Stephen Douglas, the great debater who defeated Lincoln in a Senate race. If she had, Douglas might have become president. And I mean that Lincoln would not have reached the ultimate prize without his wife.

Carter conducted Cabinet and Oval Office meetings with Rosalynn in the room. He openly relied on her as a player, long before Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, came to town.

Perhaps as a loner with few close friends — like Reagan — Carter invested in making his marriage a full partnership. Theirs was extraordinary.

Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died during his presidency. Not long after, he laid eyes on Edith, a glamorous widow who played golf. His love letters were as eloquent and passionate as his speeches saying the world must be made safe for democracy.

Their wedding was in 1915, before America entered World War I. She stepped in when he had a stroke.

Dolley Madison was a political rock star compared to the shy, short, older James. She compensated by making the band play “Hail to the Chief” for him. She gave Wednesday night soirees. She linked his name with Jefferson.

Best of all, she embellished her story of “saving” a George Washington portrait during the British burning of Washington in 1814 — James Madison’s spectacular humiliation.

George W. Bush, the 43rd president, also faced a burning attack near the White House. Serene Laura Bush radiated strength. In a Southern lady mold, she veered far from policy, but founded the National Book Festival.

The Adamses poured out every particle on paper while John governed and Abigail minded the farm. They were first to live in the White House. Her influence waned when she wrote, “Remember the ladies,” in founding the new nation. John rebuffed her.

The Reagans had eyes — and ears — for each other. When I recently interviewed their daughter, Patti Davis, she said simply: “My mother was the apple of my father’s eye.” 

First ladies get lost in a maze of grace, gardens or fashion. More to the point is their political savvy in campaigning and helping their husbands shape their legacies. The Clintons and Franklin Roosevelt and wife Eleanor were superb doubles players in public, if not in private.

Fancy how many presidents have unusually close marriages — indispensable to their success.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.

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