An air of melancholy hangs over Michael Deaver’s memoir about Nancy Reagan.
Now in her 80s, the former first lady has spent the past decade caring for her Alzheimer’s-stricken husband, who recently turned 93.
Deaver — a longtime aide to the Reagans since Ronald Reagan’s governorship in California and the author of a 2001 memoir about the former president — creates a sentimental, sympathetic picture in Nancy: A Portrait of My Years with Nancy Reagan.
In Deaver’s rendering, Nancy was the cornerstone of her husband’s political life — the one of the close-knit pair who was able to see through people, speak directly to them and deliver bad news when necessary.
“Ronald Reagan would not have risen to such distinction without Nancy at his side,” Deaver writes. “I don’t want to even think of the problems Ronald Reagan would have encountered in both Sacramento and Washington if Nancy hadn’t been quietly guarding his flank all those years.”
He adds, “You would do just as well to come between a bear and its cub as try to come between Nancy and Reagan.”
When Deaver first met Nancy Reagan, back in 1967, he was a young political aide, she the wife of the recently elected governor of California. Among Deaver’s duties was to serve as a liaison to Nancy — a woman whom campaign staffers called “difficult.” Deaver’s assignment — known among aides as “the Mommy watch” — “sounded pretty scary to me, especially since I had almost zero knowledge of my new charge,” he recalls.
But Deaver and Nancy soon struck up a close working relationship — one that has endured for years, developing into a friendship. “Maybe, I realized, the secret was to employ a radical, groundbreaking tactic: treat her like a human being,” he writes.
The sections of the book dealing with Nancy’s pre-White House existence are filled with interesting tidbits, including descriptions of the Reagans’ first date, her reactions to his plunge into politics, and their difficulties with the ramshackle governor’s mansion in Sacramento.
Deaver also provides an insider’s insight into the Reagans’ Washington years, although that time has been widely chronicled already. He recalls the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan (Deaver had been with the president as he was shot, and recounts Nancy’s arrival at George Washington University hospital, demanding to see her husband); the Gridiron dinner in 1982, when Nancy mocked her clothes-horse image before the Washington media elite; and the pillorying Nancy got when news emerged that she had been consulting an astrologist.
“You would think that being first lady would be one of the plum prizes in the land. In fact, it is one of the strangest positions ever created,” Deaver writes. “Even in these less deferential days, the presidency comes with a certain amount of built-in respect. But a first lady’s job? Good luck.”
While the conversationally written book is a valentine to Nancy Reagan, Deaver does mention two occasions on which he and she were at odds. One was in 1979, when Ronald Reagan was campaigning for president and the Reagans seemed to favor a group of advisers from the East Coast over Deaver, leading to his departure from the team for several months. Another came at the time of the famed 1985 Bitburg incident, when Nancy, feeling Deaver had let his boss down, became enraged with the aide for his involvement in selecting a cemetery where the dead included Waffen SS members for a meeting between her husband and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
The last chapter in the book, titled “Her Finest Hour,” concentrates on Alzheimer’s.
Deaver even provides a list of warning signs for the illness, courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association, including “the decline of abstract thinking” and “loss of initiative.”
“For many reasons, this has been the hardest chapter for me to complete,” Deaver writes. “Few diseases are harsher than Alzheimer’s. At a time in life when the body tires and solace comes so much from old memories, memory itself atrophies and disappears.”
“It is a cruel trick that such a vibrant, larger-than-life guy like Reagan is forced to go out this way. But it’s not just Ronald Reagan who had his future shortchanged by his disease. Nancy did, too,” he adds. “For a woman who always received her strength from his love and energy, this is a terrible way to end up their life together.”
Indeed. The chapter — which includes Deaver’s description of when he first noticed something was wrong with Reagan, as well as Nancy’s tearful initial glimpse at her husband’s 1994 letter disclosing his condition to the American people — is painful to read.
In the end, whether or not you’re a fan of Nancy Reagan’s, this book can’t help but make you admire her efforts over the past 10 years to tend to a much-loved spouse afflicted with a terrifying illness.
Nancy: A Portrait of My Years with Nancy Reagan
By Michael K. Deaver
209 pages; $24.95
William Morrow, 2004