Ronald Reagan’s lead biographer reflects on Nancy Reagan

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Reflecting on Former first lady Nancy Reagan, biographer Lou Cannon says she will “rank as one of the outstanding first ladies.”

The former first lady will be buried today beside her husband, former President Ronald Reagan at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. She died Sunday of congestive heart failure at her Bel Air home, at age 94.

Cannon, who lives in Summerland, wrote five books about Ronald Reagan and is attending today’s private funeral. He spoke with KCRW about his relationship with Nancy Reagan, and the Reagans’ relationship with Santa Barbara.

Nancy Reagan and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon. Photo Courtesy: Lou Cannon (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

On his relationship with Nancy

“I met Nancy when the Reagan governorship was just beginning, in 1967. She didn’t care for reporters of any kind, then. I can’t say that she trusted me, or I her. Over the years, that relationship changed. I came to rely on here, and I think it was a mutual feeling.”

“At one point when I was deep in my book, I was kind of flummoxed. I felt I wasn’t getting deep enough into Ronald Reagan, personally. There was a part of him that was eluding me. I arranged to see Mrs. Reagan and I told her this. I was over at her house in Bel-Air. She was in her jeans and doing housework and putting clothes in the washer. We talked about why he was like this, the alcoholism with this father, etc. and she understood this quite well. She said there are times when she can’t even get though. She made it easier on me.”

On Rancho del Cielo, The Reagans’ ranch in Santa BarbaraIMG_0752

“Reagan wasn’t just any one thing. He liked being on stage, but he needed to be off stage. He was reflective when he rode, wrote and cleared brush [at the ranch]. He needed that break. Nancy was not a ranch person, but she did it like she did so many things in her life; because she knew it was important to him. After the assassination attempt in 1981, she worried when he would go out in a crowd. They had pretty good security up on the hill, so it wasn’t a worrisome environment. I think she began to appreciate that, and the ranch became a more congenial place to her.”

On the Reagans’ interactions in Santa Barbara

“They did interact, but not as much as some people would like them to. Every year, they would have a party for the press that covered them. Queen Elizabeth visited here. Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa came out. There was also a large number of staff who stayed in hotels in Santa Barbara. But, he wasn’t really here to interact with the community. He was here to get some rest and relaxation.”

On how Nancy Reagan will fit in to the cast of first ladies

“Of all the first ladies, there are two wives of presidents who were transformational. One of them is Abigail Adams and the other is Eleanor Roosevelt. Having said that, I think Mrs. Reagan is going to rank as one of the outstanding first ladies. One concrete example is after the Iran arms sales, which were conducted in secret. Because Reagan has not told the truth about it, when it became known his popularity dropped. Mrs. Reagan understood that to survive effectively as the president, he needed to have the public trust. It took her a while, but she got him to apologize to the American people. She really rescued her husband on that one. Reagan was a great president but he would sometimes wander a little close to the cliff, and she was there to pull him back.”