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Nancy Reagan, the Good Wife

May 15, 1988|JACK BEATTY | Jack Beatty is a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly.

The country owes Nancy Reagan a debt of thanks, not the ridicule that the Don Regan book has brought down upon her. On arms control, on Nicaragua, on divisive social issues like abortion, Nancy Reagan has been a voice for reason in an Administration staffed, for the most part, either by clever right-wing zealots like Pat Buchanan or dumb right-wing zealots like Ed Meese. If she and her erstwhile friend Michael Deaver had not had the President's ear these past seven years, it is hard to imagine her husband having any sort of success.

Ironically, Mrs. Reagan is now hooted at for being out of touch with reality because she consults an astrologer, when it is she who has kept her ideology-bewitched, fantasy-ridden husband in touch with such bedrock realities as 1) the public does not want the abortion question opened up again; polls show an overwhelming disposition to let that gruesomely difficult issue remain a matter between a woman and her conscience, and 2) the public wants arms treaties with the Soviet Union--indeed, even Republican primary voters were strongly in favor of the INF treaty.

Yes, it's tacky to consult an astrologer, but who knows what level of credence Mrs. Reagan gave to what she heard? All other things being equal, moreover, what's the harm of fixing the hour for a momentous ceremony by the compass of a whim? Better that Mr. Reagan take his cues from the indifferent stars then from the passionate votaries of the hard right.

Donald Regan served his country ill by failing to stop the Iran-Contra debacle, which happened when he was our self-proclaimed "Prime Minister," a supposedly "tough," "hands-on" manager. He served his President ill by telling the truth about him-- telling what it was that caused Clark Clifford to dub him an "amiable dunce" --while he still is in office. Nancy Reagan, by contrast, has served her country well and her husband devotedly.

The whole episode is interesting for the oblique light it throws on the enduring intensity of the Reagans' relationship. Their love, it's clear, is based on mutual need. It's easy to see why Ronnie needs Nancy: She's smart, tough, unsentimental--all qualities he lacks. But this anxious woman, who has seen her husband shot and who lives with the knowledge of both his cancer and her own, also needs what he brings to match. His heroic equanimity ("Gosh, honey, I guess I forgot to duck") is their joint achievement: She does the worrying for him, and takes heart from his continual good cheer. One can think of worse divisions of marital labor.

"Come, grow old with me, the best is yet to be." Robert Browning could have had the Reagans in mind.

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