Nancy Reagan quietly pushes for stem cell study

Republican loyalty keeps dissent private, aides say

September 29, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When Nancy Reagan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House last summer, she cast her eyes demurely downward as President Bush praised her 1980s "Just Say No" campaign against teen-age drug use.

Bush did not mention Nancy Reagan's current and far more divisive cause - federal financing for embryonic stem cell research, which anti-abortion groups oppose.

Last year Bush sharply limited such research. At 81, the former first lady is obliquely but persistently campaigning - through friends, advisers, lawmakers and her own well-placed calls and letters - to reverse the president's decision.

Reagan believes that embryonic stem cell research could uncover a cure for Alzheimer's, the disease that has wiped out her husband's memory. She was dismayed, friends say, when the White House took issue last week with a new California law that encourages embryonic stem cell research.

Her advisers say Reagan's sense of decorum and party loyalty inhibit her from publicly challenging a Republican president.

Bush has worked hard to charm the woman who has become a source of Republican nostalgia. In July, Nancy Reagan spent two nights at the White House in the Queen's Bedroom, a pink and white room usually reserved for visiting royalty. At her arrival, the Bushes gathered all the White House servants who had worked for the Reagans and held an intimate dinner with her the night before the award ceremony.

"She really likes George W.," said Frederick J. Ryan Jr., chairman of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Ryan, who gave a large dinner for Reagan after she received her medal, added, "I think she sees him as emulating Ronald Reagan's presidential style. She sometimes calls me when someone has been critical of him and says, `What are we going to do about this?'"

But Nancy Reagan, whose stepfather and stepbrother were neurosurgeons, dissents on the subject of stem cell research.

She voiced concerns about the president's policy on stem cell research with the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., at the dinner party in her honor, an aide to Card said. But her friends say it is unlikely she would have breached etiquette by raising the issue with Bush while a guest in his house.

Direct confrontation was never her style. In the Reagan White House, Nancy Reagan was a stealth first lady who pursued her husband's political and personal agenda behind the scenes, using her network of friends and advisers to lobby decision-makers or leak information to reporters.

Now Reagan is a stealth lobbyist, working her old network to once again wield influence in Washington. She has personally contacted 20 members of Congress, button-holed administration officials and conferred with leading scientists.

"A lot of time is being wasted," she told a friend last week who was given permission to pass her words on to The New York Times. "A lot of people who could be helped are not being helped."

Scientists contend that embryonic stem cells, which can form any of the body's cell types, will one day be used to treat many diseases. But researchers must destroy human embryos to get the cells, and that is why anti-abortion groups oppose the work and Bush restricted federal financing for it last year.

Last year Reagan wrote to Bush, saying she hoped that sparing other families what hers had suffered could be part of her husband's legacy. She then entrusted two advisers to show it to influential Republican legislators.

Wednesday, Reagan appeared on the CBS program 60 Minutes II in a taped interview with Mike Wallace, who has known her since the 1940s. Reagan told Wallace that her husband no longer seemed to recognize her. She spoke eloquently of her loneliness, but she did not discuss her anger.

Wallace said he was surprised that Reagan replied "Yes," when he called to ask if he could relate her views to a New York Times reporter. Wallace said that a few minutes later she called him back and added her concern that time in the search for a cure to Alzheimer's was being wasted.

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