FIGHTING BACK : Over the Course of Her Husband's Political Career, Nancy Reagan Has Developed Her Own Mission: to Protect Ronald Reagan, No Matter What

March 22, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN and BETTY CUNIBERTI | Elizabeth Mehren and Betty Cuniberti are Times staff writers.

PRESIDENT REAGAN CALLED IT "despicable fiction." His wife, he said angrily, had not engineered the replacement of his White House chief of staff and she wasn't involved in any government decision-making. "There is nothing to that," he said of the headlines that called her a "power behind the throne" and "the new Edith Wilson."

Yet the image of Nancy Reagan as a tough, savvy political infighter who jealously guards her husband's good name surfaced years before Donald T. Regan drove out the White House gates after abruptly resigning. It has been, in fact, almost as enduring as the extraordinarily close 35-year marriage that has sustained Reagan through his rise from actor to California governor to President of the United States.

Without Nancy, friends of the couple candidly declare, Ronald Reagan would probably not be President. She has always been her husband's best friend and closest adviser, "the one person I can trust." To former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, she is "the indispensable factor in his political life."

What has always been special about her, friends say, is the intensity with which she supports him--an adoration that in public moments comes across as "the gaze" upward at him, and that in his elected life has translated into a special ability to mold an environment that best promotes his political skills. "Some people you meet in your life make you stretch to reach your fullest capabilities," she wrote of her adoptive father; it might well have also applied to her marriage.

Nancy Reagan's is an influence that has been molded by a series of episodes that both threatened her husband's career and presented an opportunity for her to help shape his future. They have transformed her from the backstage political wife of his Sacramento years to the far more forceful White House figure working to repair the damage from the worst scandal of his career.

"So many of the people they know have died," a friend says of the Reagans today. "Neither of them has a lot of close friends; they're each other's. . . . There's nothing that they don't do together."


"I had a few rough times in the beginning."--FROM "NANCY," BY NANCY REAGAN WITH BILL LIBBY

JUST A FEW MONTHS after Anne Frances Robbins was born in Manhattan on July 6, 1921, her father, car dealer Kenneth Robbins, left her mother. Two years later, her mother, actress Edith Luckett, decided that the toddler was thwarting her career. Little Anne, who had been nicknamed Nancy, was sent off to live with an aunt and uncle in Bethesda, Md.

The separation was traumatic and over the years led to Nancy's determination to be a model wife and mother. She focused on a future filled with romance and family. Nancy Reynolds, a friend of the First Lady since she was her press secretary in Sacramento, sees that same impulse still. Mrs. Reagan, she says, has "the strongest nesting instinct I've ever seen."

"My aunt and uncle were very nice to me," Nancy Reagan said in a 1982 interview with The Times, "but I missed my mother. Very much. She had to earn a living, and she couldn't take me touring all over the country with her. And I guess somewhere I said to myself way back here"--she paused, pointing to the back of her head--" 'Boy, when I get married!' "

The lonely little girl would take dolls and toy dishes out to the front of the house in Maryland and give pretend parties. When she suffered a bout of pneumonia at age 4 without her mother to care for her, she decided: "If I ever have a child and she's sick, I'll certainly be with her." Another time, during a visit with her natural father, Nancy and he got into an argument about her mother and he locked her in a bathroom. "I was terrified," she wrote in "Nancy," her autobiography, "and it seemed suddenly as if I were with strangers. Recalling the incident brings back a flood of memories I would rather forget."

Her rescuer from those turbulent early years was Loyal Davis, the wealthy Chicago surgeon her mother married in 1929. Davis adopted her when she was 14, and he showered her with love and material comforts. There would be difficult times yet: Her 18-month courtship by a Princeton student, Frank Birney, ended in tragedy when he was struck by a train and killed; and she called off an engagement to an Amherst College student after deciding that she had simply been "swept up in the glamour of the war, wartime engagements and waiting for the boys who were away."

But she would find a model in her mother, whom she came to see as "the ideal doctor's wife," expert at hosting her husband's social affairs. She emulated her mother in another way, pursuing an acting career after she graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Between 1949 and 1956 she would make 11 films.

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