• History

What Nancy Reagan Said About How to Be a ‘Successful’ First Lady

3 minute read

It was 1985 when Nancy Reagan—the former First Lady who died at 94 on Sunday—was first featured on the cover of TIME. It had been decades since she first showed up in the magazine’s pages, in a 1966 publisher’s note that mentioned her making tuna salad for Ronald Reagan and Los Angeles Bureau Chief Marshall Berges, and a full presidential term since she had assumed the job of what the cover called “White House co-star.”

By that point she was, noted White House Correspondent Laurence I. Barrett, more confident in her role than she had once been. Over the course of her first term in the White House, she had become more and more of a political asset to her husband—and, said a presidential aide, “no longer just Ronald Reagan’s wife.” She spoke to the public more often, influenced her husband in private more and invested more of herself in the anti-drug efforts about which she was so passionate.

And, finally, after having done the job once, she was ready to offer her take on the nebulous and often tricky role of the First Lady, a position of great responsibility but little definition. Here’s what she told TIME then:

Q. What have you learned about yourself since becoming First Lady?

A. When you are put into a brand-new situation, it takes a while to get accustomed, to know what is expected of you, and as you know, the first year was a terrible year. That year is almost wiped out for me. Now I have more self-confidence. It doesn’t mean you change as a person. It means you have grown.

Q. In what ways have you grown?

A. Once I got past the first year and was able to get out on the drug situation . . . the first couple of trips, I didn’t know if I was going to be any help or not. It became obvious that I was doing some good and that the kids relate to me and I to them. It was wonderful. And then the traveling and meeting people.

Q. What are your thoughts on what it takes to be a successful First Lady?

A. I am not Rosalynn Carter. I am not Pat Nixon or Jackie Kennedy. Everybody does it differently. I discovered I would find it difficult to just sit here and not do anything except entertain. For me, having a goal is very important . . . I think you have to let a lot of things roll off your back; I was not able to do that in Sacramento or here at the beginning. But if you get a sureness about yourself and what you can do, you just go ahead and do it.

Read the full 1985 cover story, here in the TIME Vault: Nancy Reagan’s Growing Role

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com