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A Talk with Nancy Reagan

5 minute read

TIME White House Correspondent Laurence I. Barrett has conducted more than two dozen talks of varying length with Nancy Reagan since he began covering her husband’s presidential campaign in January 1980. The setting for the past two conversations was familiar: the White House family quarters, where the First Lady lounged on a large sofa imported from the Reagans’ former home in Pacific Palisades. But the interviewee had changed markedly from earlier talks: she was more confident, more willing to express her own ideas. Highlights:

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.

Q. Are you going to expand the antidrug program?

A. When I talk to the wives who come here for the state dinners, they always ask me about the drug program. They are interested in doing something in their countries. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could give all those wives the advantage of what we have learned? I would like to expand the program out of this country.

Q. Do you and the President ever sit down and hash out an issue?

A. Sometimes. Not on foreign policy or something like that. But if we saw something on the news that was unfair, I would say why can’t we do something to show that? I have said that there should be more press conferences. I think there may be more.

Q. Is there any footnote you can add to your husband’s decision to run again?

A. I don’t think it’s any secret I dragged my heels a little bit. It was a series of conversations with Ronnie that would come up at strange times. He was trying to explain to me why he felt so strongly that he should run for a second term. I had reservations, and he knew what they were. But I never said, “No, I really don’t want you to do it.” And the more he talked . . . there comes a time when you put aside other considerations.

Q. I am told that you showed more emotion over the way the first debate (with Walter Mondale) went than on any other occasion. What was your reaction?

A. I was upset because I know my husband, I know what he knows and how he works best. Intellectually, people tend to underestimate him. After the debate I talked to Mike (Deaver, deputy White House chief of staff). He’s my oldest friend, and I’m sure that he knows that whatever I say, I say it with all good intentions. I just said I thought what they did in the preparation was all wrong, and let’s not have it happen again.

Q. There is an observation that the President finds it very helpful to use you as a means of smuggling messages out to his inner circle.

A. No, that’s not true. We may get into a conversation, and he may make some comments that I think would be helpful for Mike to know, and I might call Mike and tell him.

Q.But that’s in line with what I was talking about.

A. Yes, but not in terms of I would take it to Mike. It wouldn’t be Ronnie using me to get a message to them (the inner circle). It would be Ronnie talking to me–and after he reads this article he’ll never talk to me again.

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