In November of 1980, I was a graduate student in hallowed halls where most of my colleagues and professors judged the end of the world was upon us. Ronald Reagan--remember that picture of him and the chimp?--had just been elected President of these United States, a former Hollywood movie star with unimpeachable. conservative credentials. Fire, pestilence and certain doom threatened all around. People talked of Canada.
We all lived through the next eight years and, in retrospect, did quite well. Some consider Reagan's two terms the finest years of the 20th century; then again, some aren't as worshipful. Iran-Contra was messy horror, and air traffic controllers found themselves out of work; but Reagan pulled off some wonders and made a hefty portion of America once more proud of being American.
If you liked Reagan, you probably liked Nancy too, always cow-eyed there beside him, the perfect helpmeet, who, as it turns out, did substantially more than pick out her husband's ties. Today, some call her the most powerful First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, more immediately influential than Hillary. Flaky?--well, maybe, consulting horror-scopes and other divines to determine the national course of action. But always there, maybe the most trusted adviser.
I met a woman from Tampico, Illinois, the birthplace of a the President, the man she insisted on calling "Ronnie," as if he was still in the swings in the city park. In the second floor apartment (above the bank) where Ronnie was born, there's something of museum today, nothing like the Reagan library, but something little Tampico is proud of.
And there, beneath a lamp on a table, stands a picture of Jane Wyman, Ronnie's first wife. His marriage to that Hollywood star is part of Ronnie's story, so that framed picture has a rightful place in Tampico's little museum. But locals claim that when Ronnie and Nancy toured the little upstairs apartment, Nancy made it very clear that she did not care for Wyman's picture. She hurried her husband out of there quickly--or so the story goes.
I'll have you know that Jane Wyman's starlet pic is still there on the table. Tampico doesn't have to listen to Nancy Reagan.
In 1992, the Reagans returned to Tampico, two years after he'd completed his second term. On the streets of Tampico, the word is that Ronnie was clearly showing signs of senility--that was two years before his Alzheimer's was made public. Everyone knew, it is said, because Nancy commandeered the whole event, made all the decisions. Nancy was at the helm of the Reagan ship, Ronnie something akin to a smiling passenger.
Nancy Reagan died last week. If you wade through some of the memories, the stories, the reminiscences, it's not hard to forgo all the old politics. She loved Tampico's Ronnie. She cared for him. Selflessly.
That whole trip back to his boyhood home, I was told, was awkward in the way the presence of Alzheimers creates discomfort especially if it's not acknowledged. What may have looked bossy and pushy was behavior that arose from a heart full of love and respect, and a determination not to injure the President or his love for those he loved and who loved him in Tampico and all around this country.
That little upstairs Ronald Reagan museum has a copy of letter Ronnie himself wrote when, in 1994, he himself acknowledged what Tampico awkwardly witnessed but didn't mention two years earlier.
I confess--for years I thought of Nancy as cloying. She made me sneer.
But today I can't help think of how difficult it must have been for her to take care of Ronnie on a trip to his old hometown, the upstairs apartment where he was born--how much she must have worried, how hard she had to work to try to make it all work smoothly. He was, after all, "Mr. President."
More than that, he was the man she loved.