The Triumph of Nancy Reagan

Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty talks about her new book, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan.

A couple of weeks ago, I had Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty on the podcast to talk about her new book, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: Would anyone today even remember Ronald Reagan if it weren’t for Nancy?

Karen: Well, certainly fans of General Electric Theater from the 1950s would have heard of him. But you know, what I heard consistently in my research, whether it was talking to Stuart Spencer, who was Reagan's earliest political consultant advisor, or people like [former Chief of Staff] James Baker, was “no,” that without Nancy Reagan, he would never have been governor or president. They really were a partnership in ways that I think people didn't appreciate at the time, and in ways that, quite frankly, she didn't want people to appreciate at the time. Ronald Reagan was sort of a solitary figure. He certainly had an idea for how he wanted to govern the country. But as [Reagan biographer] Lou Cannon wrote, and I quote in the very first sentence of my book, “Reagan always knew where he wanted to go; she had a better sense of what it was going to take to get there.”

Matt: It occurs to me that a lot of the people you talked to in this book, if you had waited another ten years, a lot of these sources wouldn’t be around anymore.

Karen: That's right. And sadly, you know, a number of the people I talked to doing the research for the book are no longer around even now. I interviewed George Shultz, when he was 97 years old. He told me some really revelatory things. In fact, I opened the book with him. But I did get a sense sometimes from people that they too realize that the these stories needed to be told or, you know, now was the time. One of my people I talked to quite a bit was James Kuhn, who was Reagan's executive assistant in his second term. He physically spent more time in Nancy's presence than any other human being. And we did a couple of hours worth of interviews. But then he called me about six weeks later and said, “we've got a lot more we need to talk about and bring your tape recorder,” and it just turns out the guy has practically a photographic memory. 

Matt: So let's talk a little bit about Nancy Reagan's childhood—and Ronald Reagan's childhood.

Karen: Her early life begins with trauma. She's the daughter of an ambitious actress and not very successful car salesman, whose marriage is effectively over by the time she is born. Her mother, a modestly successful actress, decides that she does not want to interrupt her career or her very busy social life for this inconveniently timed baby, so as soon as Nancy is out of diapers, she essentially abandons her with relatives, and this child spends the next six to eight years of her life just yearning for her absent mother. As their son Ron told me, it really cast a shadow on her spirit and left her with an anxiety that truly, truly never lifted. It was not something she talked about very often, although I found an extraordinary speech that she gave at Boys Town, the old the orphanage outside of Omaha made famous by Father Flanagan, where she says to these kids, “You know, I once yearned for a normal family, so I know how beaten down you can feel for all this and that you close your heart because you've got hurt by opening your heart.” Um, so always always in her life, she is convinced that no matter how good things are, no matter how charmed her existence seems, the entire bottom could drop out at any moment. And that certainly seems to be confirmed two months into her husband's presidency, when she almost loses him to a would-be assassin's bullet.

Matt: And how about Ronald Reagan’s childhood?

Karen: Ronald Reagan's childhood too was one of trauma, being the son of an alcoholic father who took this family from one precarious situation into another. It’s really his mother, and you really see the parallels between Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan's mother. In fact, Reagan called his his wife, “Mommy.” Um, you know, he finds sanctuary in this, his mother's adoration. On top of that when he meets Nancy in 1949, he's really at a low point. His first wife has walked out on him, devastating him, his film career is coming to an end. He is literally a broken man, when he shows up for their first date. He is standing on crutches, because he has broken his leg in six places in a charity baseball game. And as Reagan would later say, “If Nancy Davis hadn't come along, when she did, I would have lost my soul.”

Matt: If you look at Reagan's childhood, the son of the alcoholic, and Nancy's childhood abandonment, I mean, I don't want to play pop psychologist too much, but is it safe to say that Nancy's role as Ronnie’s protector, maybe comes from that?

Karen: Oh, absolutely, and really, you don't need a degree in psychology for this. It is so clear that these two people, yes, they are a great love story. But you know, love is in part about chemistry and history. And in the two of them, they find each other this kind of happiness, and wholeness, and security that has really eluded both of them. And in her case, you know, as anxious as she was, she was also pretty fearless. She would do anything that needed to be done if she perceived a threat to what she and Ronald Reagan had in each other. Now there's some ancillary damage here, because these two are bound so closely together, that there's no room for anyone else, including their four children, two from his previous marriage, the two they had together, and certainly some of the most painful parts of the book, I think are the dysfunction within the Reagan family. Nancy herself will later right, “All I ever wanted to be was a good wife and mother, and I guess I succeeded more on one than the other.” And the dedication of her memoir is really poignant in that regard, it's “To Ronnie, who always understood. And to my children, who I hope will understand.”

Click here to listen to our full conversation.