Was Nancy Reagan a petticoat president? On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 11, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- BEYOND ALL the titillating tidbits in her new, unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan, Washington gossip writer Kitty Kelley makes one allegation that, if true, would be cause for more than the genial snickering that generally has greeted the hyped release of the book.

The author says that despite staff denials "the First Lady controlled the presidency." It was she, not the White House chief of staff, Kelley writes, "who ran things in Ronald Reagan's White House. It was she who dictated the president's schedule, supervised his speeches, counseled his advisers, decided which interviews he should give, regulated his work load, decided his free time, directed his energies and controlled access to the White House."

It is tempting to comment tongue-in-cheek that if so, at least it was better than leaving all these matters to one of the most disengaged of recent presidents. Kelley writes that Ronald Reagan's two White House chiefs, James Baker and Donald Regan, and other insiders "publicly dismissed (Nancy Reagan's interest) as nothing more than wifely concern about his health and welfare." But Kelley insists they said what they did so that the president wouldn't be "depicted as henpecked" and "for their own well-being they needed to have him appear stronger and more capable than he really was."

Kelley goes on to attribute to the former First Lady the critical softening of Reagan's views toward the "evil empire" as he once called the Soviet Union and his ultimate willingness to enter into arms control agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev. While all this may be true, it is a far cry from "controlling the presidency,"

especially with strong individuals in the administration like Baker and Regan pulling the president's strings as well as his wife tugging them.

Kelley suggests that Nancy Reagan's influence "far surpassed" that of Edith Bolling Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson's second wife who barred even key members of his cabinet from his presence after he suffered a debilitating stroke in October, 1919.

"While President Reagan was not physically incapacitated, except when he was recuperating from the assassination attempt and from his colon operation," she writes, "he was mentally disengaged from the daily routine of the presidency, especially during his second term. By then, most of his top aides admit, his faculties were failing and he was 'operating on automatic.' The president's mind was closed for repairs."

That may have been so, but by this time Reagan had laid down a very clear blueprint for the sort of administration he wanted, and his chief aides set about constructing it -- with, to be sure, adjustments of their own that they were able to wing past Reagan's detail-dismissing mind.

Mrs. Wilson on the other hand was much more directly the "petticoat president" that Kelley has labeled Nancy Reagan in interviews. She became, not figuratively but literally, the doorkeeper to President Wilson's sickroom, not only keeping his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, from entry but also screening all papers that were submitted to the ailing president and boiling the daily pile down herself to those she deemed most required his attention.

This procedure led one Republican senator, Albert Fall of New Mexico, to proclaim that "we have petticoat government! Mrs. Wilson is president!" The First Lady herself later referred to her "stewardship" of the presidency. "I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs," she said, while acknowledging that she did decide "what was important and what was not" to go to him -- hardly an insignificant function.

Mrs. Wilson also barred from the sickroom the man constitutionally positioned to take over the presidency as a result of Wilson's severe disability, Vice President Thomas R. Marshall. Historian John M. Blum writes that "Mrs. Wilson would not trust him with her husband's precious treaty (putting the United States in the League of Nations)," and Marshall never tried to buck her by invoking the presidential disability clause.

For all this, it's probably fair to say that Nancy Reagan was influential with her husband. But so was Rosalyn Carter with hers, and Eleanor Roosevelt with hers, to name just a couple of other strong-willed First Ladies. These two, however, were deeply issue-oriented women who didn't know Rodeo Drive from a cow pasture. To suggest, as Kelley does, that when Nancy moved her lips Ronnie spoke, doesn't mean the Reagan Revolution was altered in any serious way as a result. It wasn't.

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