Nancy Reagan: First Lady as PR Pro

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An actor by trade, former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, always seemed to be a First Lady from central casting: impeccably attired, hair perfectly coiffed and an omnipresent smile. In this she was an apt partner to her husband, also an actor, whose ability to look the part of the commander in chief was one of his strengths.

Looks can be deceptive, of course. Joan Didion described Nancy Reagan’s smile as a “study in frozen insincerity,” as Jacob Weisberg noted in Slate yesterday.

Still, Mrs. Reagan’s talent for creating a presidential appearance and aura must be counted among many talents that PR pros can admire. Weisberg recalls Reagan’s first inauguration, where Mrs. Reagan wore a $10,000 gown and later spent $400,000 to purchase new china for the White House. To be fair, however, such extravagance brought its share of bad PR at the time, as the country was undergoing economic difficulties.

With the exception of Edith Wilson, perhaps no first lady wielded more power behind the scenes than Nancy Reagan. As Weisberg notes, “Her influence extended deep into the inner workings of the White House.” He adds, “During Reagan’s second term, Nancy essentially fired Don Regan as White House chief of staff herself.” She and Regan disagreed about how much recovery time her husband needed after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous polyp from the presidential colon. The first lady argued her man required more time than Regan suggested. You know who won that one.

Later, she orchestrated the ouster of William Clark, the national security adviser, due to his hawkish beliefs. The first lady pushed for the president to be a peacemaker with the Russians. More on that in a moment.

While it’s well known that Mrs. Reagan was devoted to her husband, a point that Weisberg and others have been making since her passing is that she also was one of the chief custodians of Ronald Reagan’s image. Behind The Great Communicator was Nancy Reagan, PR pro, helping to create, shape and, later, guard his image. In addition, as many CMOs do today, she was advising the chief executive on many policy questions.

As a good PR person, Mrs. Reagan guarded her client's image with vigor. In fact, writes Weisberg, “She was ultimately much more concerned with her husband’s reputation than with her own….” Mrs. Reagan was being the consummate PR pro, putting her client first and herself in the background.

Another journalist, who covered the Reagan White House, USA Today’s Owen Ullmann, adds, “Nancy never upstaged her husband or took credit for these accomplishments,” yet another trait of the PR pro. “She always stood in his shadow, encouraging him, whispering responses to reporters' questions when he couldn't think of one.”

Ullmann notes the first lady, again filling the shoes of presidential PR pro, also helped shape some of her husband’s policies. “While [President] Reagan gave sharply worded speeches that embellished his conservative views on small government and his antipathy toward the Soviet Union, Nancy Reagan softened her husband's sharp edges to produce a pragmatic president who could cut deals with the political opposition in Congress and Soviet leaders he had assailed.” It certainly helped that Mr. Reagan’s hawkish credentials made summits with the Soviets palatable to the U.S. defense establishment.

“On domestic policy,” Ullmann writes, “Nancy Reagan encouraged compromises on budget policies to preserve some programs for the poor in return for cuts in other programs that did not target those most in need.” Compromises in Washington? It definitely was another era.

“Although the president gave rhetorical support to the anti-abortion movement, Nancy restrained him from taking actions that would further restrict a woman's right to an abortion, keeping him in line with the majority sentiment in the nation.”

While the president’s line on homosexuality remained firm, Mrs. Reagan preached tolerance. Like a good PR person, she was shaping the message. When Mr. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, his consummate PR adviser guarded his image with even more fervor, barely allowing anyone to see him, preserving the presidential aura.

Although there's an adage, outdated at this point, that behind every successful man is a successful woman, President Reagan also had a savvy PR person behind him and in his bedroom.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein