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How Powerful Is She? : Documentary Looks At Mrs. Reagan

June 21, 1985|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For those intrigued by the Nancy Reagan mystery, a one-hour NBC documentary to be aired Monday night at 10 offers a substantial peek behind her curtain of privacy.

Is she a rich, traditional wife who cares only about her husband and her clothes? Or is she a powerful, political force in the White House, the person pulling the President's strings?

The documentary suggests that she is a little of both.

The First Lady admits, if vaguely, that she plays a key role in White House personnel decisions--something that has long been reported but that she has always denied.

Knowing her reputation for coy evasiveness, NBC White House correspondent Chris Wallace said he warned her before they began taping that he already had film of several credible people describing her powerful role, "And I told her," said Wallace, "that if she giggled and said, 'Who, me?' that she would look stupid."

Mrs. Reagan tells Wallace that she is "aware of people who are trying to take advantage of my husband," and then, when she sees something she doesn't like, "I try to stop it . . . by telling him or telling someone else."

She never admits to any specific instance where she had a voice in having someone removed. As is her nature, she doesn't delve deeply into details on any subject that is considered controversial for her, offering lengthy thoughts only on such subjects as the assassination attempt ("I remember the voices . . . the smells . . . I remember everything") and the death of her stepfather, which brings tears to her eyes. But she offers enough new glimpses and hints to add more clarity to her somewhat blurry image.

Wallace spent five months on the piece and obtained the heart of her portrait from other people:

Her son, Ron, saying that she is "not always the easiest person to get along with . . . a very shrewd judge of character . . . either a very powerful ally or an enemy you don't want to have."

Her stepson, Michael, saying, "Without her, Dad probably wouldn't be President of the United States."

Political consultant Stuart Spencer, who has worked on campaigns for both Reagan and Gerald Ford: "She'd call me and say, 'Spency, you really screwed up.' . . . We include her in a lot of decision making in the political process when we're in the campaign."

Longtime Reagan aide Edward Rollins: "I think that she wanted him to be President probably more than he wanted to be President."

And Michael Deaver, the former Reagan aide who dealt with her the most in the first term: "I think she understands better now than she did at the beginning that she is in a position for the first time in her life to be more than just Mrs. Ronald Reagan . . . that she can do something with her life independently which can make a change for the good."

Wallace presents her as a woman who has changed since her husband took office, "liberated by her new popularity, by her greater awareness of the platform she has, by the fact she'll never have to face another election." But he also quotes another reporter as saying that she merely has learned better "how to play the game," to present herself better.

After a month of negotiating, the filming began, and Wallace was given access to many places that are off-limits to reporters: the White House living quarters, Camp David, the ranch in Santa Barbara, the inside of the Vatican and even her ailing mother's residence in Arizona.

Mrs. Reagan appeared to be more comfortable and open with Wallace than she has been with other reporters. He interviewed her several times for a total of about three hours.

"I think she wants people to know what a key player she is in her husband's success," Wallace told The Times. "She would deny it, but I think she looks to history, to spreading some of the credit around, at least in her subconscious."

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