What Would Nancy Reagan Do?

I write this as a great admirer of First Lady Jill Biden. As the presidential election grows nearer,I cannot help but think that she must be more and more conflicted. The choice she faces — promoting her husband’s political ambitions or protecting his legacy — can no longer be avoided.

Having worked closely with Nancy Reagan during her husband’s first term, and seeing how she weighed choices like this one, I’ve found myself wondering if Mrs. Reagan were in Dr. Biden’s position, what advice would she have given to Ronald Reagan? Nancy was both a sounding board and guardian of her husband’s interests and those of the country. In the end, I believe Nancy Reagan would have counseled Ronald Reagan to protect his legacy of stabilizing the economy, confronting the Soviet Union and restoring American self-confidence over seeking a second term, especially if he had been at such risk of losing re-election.

Mr. Reagan and Mr. Biden’s legacies hung in the balance because of issues related to age. Of course, those issues and circumstances were different. Toward the end of Mr. Reagan’s presidency, age started to have an impact on his performance (he did not announce his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease until 1994, some six years later); Mrs. Reagan’s protective instincts kicked in, reducing his schedule and prioritizing his agenda. Earlier, Mr. Reagan had used his age against his presidential rival Walter Mondale to considerable political advantage. (“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” he said.) Mr. Biden’s age has clearly become a burden for his re-election prospects. According to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, 73 percent of Democrats believe that Mr. Biden is too old to serve another term as president.

In each case, the presidents enjoyed a steadfast backing that went beyond the fierce loyalty for which most first ladies are known. Mrs. Reagan’s backing extended even to urging her husband to stand up to his powerful ideological advisers. I don’t know whether Dr. Biden does the same, but it is clear that she is highly capable and politically savvy, and that her husband depends on her.

I have always felt that the relationship between Ronald and Nancy Reagan, which I had the honor to observe at close quarters, created a whole that was much larger than the sum of its parts. Together, they were much better, more forceful and effective than their individual selves.

This is not surprising. As the 80-year-plus Harvard Study of Adult Development has demonstrated, we are far better off in reliable long-term partnerships than going it alone. The Reagans were married for 52 years. The Bidens have been married for 46 years. This kind of bond is irreplaceable. It gives each partner the unique legitimacy of being a trusted adviser, an honest broker and a truth teller.

Back to top button