The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Nancy Reagan: China Doll or Dragon Lady?
James G. Bense, Jr., Presidential Studies Quarterly, 20, Fall 1990

[This is an abridgement]
Nancy Reagan's involvement in the Reagan administration has made the importance of studying First Ladies...obvious. Few observers of the presidency of Ronald Reagan would doubt the political impact of his wife. Mrs. Reagan was often thought to have had a substantial impact in her husband's administration, particularly in the area of personnel. Although each First Lady views her role very differently, studying the way in which Nancy Reagan fulfilled the position provides insight not only into her historical importance as a First Lady, but also into the general role of First Ladies within the American political system.

....One way in which to see the importance of First Ladies is to examine the conflicting roles they are expected to play in American society. Such an approach builds on the efforts of Thomas E. Cronin, who has shown that in order to understand the limits of the modern presidency, we must understand the ways in which we overestimate the power of the office and underestimate the social and cultural factors that shape the president's performance. Indeed, Cronin argues that we place conflicting demands on presidents, which puts them in no-win situations that Cronin calls paradoxes.

In many ways, American culture and politics do much the same thing to First Ladies....

One reason for the various conflicting expectations that First Ladies face is the constitutional ambiguity of the office. Historically, the First Lady has been expected to fulfill a variety of functions, ranging from national hostess to advocate for the disadvantaged. However, she is not elected to her position and it provides no formal power or remuneration. This creates many expectations for the First Lady, but provides her little means for fulfilling them....

In addition, First Ladies have also served as a national symbol....The problem of serving as a national symbol is only worsened by the celebrity status now accorded the First Family. In a nation that thrives on the activities of baseball players, boxers, and movie stars, the activities of the First Lady have become fodder for supermarket tabloids....Everything the First Lady does becomes news, turning the smallest foible into a national story.

The First Lady's problems as a national symbol have become even more difficult with the changing role of American women and the electorate's polarization on women's issues. In order to satisfy the expectations of traditionalists, First Ladies are expected to be loyal to their husbands, raise a family, and be promoters of art and culture....However, First Ladies are also expected to have an interest outside the family and to be an advocate of women's issues (in order to satisfy contemporary feminist interests). Thus, the multiple roles of women in American society (homemaker and working woman) are reflected in the demands on First Ladies....

There are several reasons why Nancy Reagan makes an excellent case study of the paradoxes faced by First Ladies. First, having only recently returned to private life, the situations faced by Mrs. Reagan are still fresh in our memory. Second, while First Lady, Nancy Reagan was the recipient of much conflicting criticism. Early in Ronald Reagan's first term of office, Nancy Reagan was roundly criticized for her seemingly misplaced priorities -- spending too much money on clothes and china and too little attention to social concerns. Ironically, late in her husband's second term, she was criticized for becoming too actively involved in the affairs of the presidency....

An Uncommon Person with the Common Touch

As mentioned earlier, First Ladies often serve as symbols in American culture. However, there are two dimensions to their role as symbol that can be difficult to reconcile. One one hand, as part of their ceremonial function, First Ladies are expected to bring a special style, class, and dignity to the White House. On the other hand, First Ladies should also exhibit a concern for the common person. Many First Ladies have had difficulty accomplishing both goals and were criticized for being either too elitist or too common....

Among the modern First is Jacqueline Kennedy who is best remembered for bringing culture and style to the White House....[Betty] Caroli...notes television's importance in popularizing Jacqueline Kennedy with the American public:

....Jackie Kennedy offered a new model of womanliness. Here was a First Lady
who seemed acquainted with Europe, informed about literature and the arts, yet
attractive enough to compete with movie actresses and sex symbols.

....No less a critic than Margaret Mead claimed that Jackie Kennedy had "gladdened the eye" and "awakened Americans to their cultural heritage."

Much of the same enthusiasm awaited the inauguration of President Reagan and the arrival of Nancy Reagan in the White House. Prior to the inaguration, many leading news well as personality magazines...slavishly reported the Reagan plans for bringing style back to the White House. No detail was too small to be ignored. One learned of the types of gowns she preferred (by designers Galanos, Adolfo, and Bill Blass), the style of her hair (lightly frosted by Monsieur Marc), her decorator (Los Angeles interior decorator Ted Grader), and her closest friends (including Betsy Bloomingdale, Bonita Granville Wrather, Martha Lyles, Jean Smith, Jane Dart, Virginia Tuttle, Marion Jorgenson, and Betty Wilson -- often described as world-class party-goers and -givers and as movers in California society). There was a sense of a return to style and elegance in Washington society after the perceived austerity of the Carter years....

However, there is a fine line between style and elitism, and at some point early in the administration, the public felt that Nancy Reagan had crossed over that line. Certainly, the press's attitude towards her seemed to change. In 1981, Newsweek ran a story entitled "Mrs. Reagan's Free Clothes," in which they reported that Nancy Reagan had accepted an unspecified number of gowns on loan from her favorite top designers. Newsweek also indirectly suggested that Mrs. Reagan's action might have violated the spirit of the Government Ethics Act of 1977, and pointed out that other First Ladies had not accepted the same policy. Soon, a virtual onslaught of criticism began. Mrs. Reagan was chastised for raising $800,000 from private funds to refurbish the White House (much of the money donated being...deductible from tax returns in the 50 percent bracket, so that the public was indirectly footing a large portion of the bill), getting $209,000 worth of donated china, letting Architectural Digest have exclusive photo rights to the new interior, and keeping three hairdressers buzzing in and out of the White House. The CBS Evening News juxtaposed a story about an impoverished widow's eviction with a story about the First Lady's acquisition of an expensive new dress. Finally, in a cover story in December 1981, Newsweek suggested that the real Nancy Reagan was revealed when she savagely dressed down a Los Angeles hotel manager for delaying the President['s] and her entry to the presidential suite to allow the prior occupant to pack up and leave.

The administration claimed that the general public was not nearly as concerned about these issues as was the media elite, but polling data by the media suggested that this was not the case. A Newsweek poll reported on December 21, 1981 showed...fully 62 percent of the public thought that Nancy Reagan put "too much emphasis on style and elegance," given current economic conditions and her husband's attention to Federal budget cutting. In addition, 61 percent of the respondents felt that Nancy Reagan was less sympathetic than other First Ladies to the problems of the poor and disadvantaged.

A number of factors were involved in Mrs. Reagan's unpopularity early in her husband's administration. One factor was undoubtedly poor timing. Many of the issues involved were by themselves unimportant; however, they took place during an economic recession. Using private donations to purchase new china for the White House might seem laudable under ordinary circumstances -- to have the story break on the same day that the Department of Agriculture declared catsup a vegetable in school lunch programs suggested a lack of feeling...for the needs of average Americans. At some point early in the Reagan administration, Nancy Reagan crossed over the line from style to ostentation....

Thus, there was soon reported to be White House concern that Mrs. Reagan's image problem would adversely affect President Reagan's 1984 reelection chances. In February, 1982 a group of White House advisors...met at Camp David to discuss what could be done about the "Nancy problem." Many of those present felt her image could not be changed and that Mrs. Reagan should just be kept out of sight of the press and be allowed to live how she wanted....However, two important political advisors, Michael Deaver and Richard Wirthlin, thought that her image could be changed although she would have to quit her fun-loving crowd, tone down the parties, designer dresses, and traveling hairdressers. In addition, an effort would have to be made to win over the press. The first step occurred on March 29, 1982 when the First Lady appeared for the Gridiron Dinner dress in old, ill-fitting, ragged clothes and sang a self-deprecating song about wearing "second-hand clothes." The press reviews of her performance were outstanding, and favorable stories soon followed. In 1982, Mrs. Reagan also began a series of television appearances designed to make her seem more accessible to the public. For example, she appeared on the NBC-TV comedy series "Different Strokes" [sic] and she cohosted the morning talk show "Good Morning America." However, most importantly, she found a cause -- drug abuse.

There is a grand tradition of First Ladies adopting causes. Lady Bird Johnson fostered beautification. Betty Ford pushed for the Equal Rights Amendment, and Rosalynn Carter advocated better treatment for the mentally ill. While it is true that Mrs. Reagan was involved in the anti-drug cause before reaching the White House, it is also true that the White House highlighted her anti-drug efforts in an obvious attempt to improve her image. Again, part of this campaign involved television. By fall of 1985, Mrs. Reagan had appeared on 23 talk shows to discuss drugs and had narrated a two-hour PBS special called "The Chemical People." In 1984, she appeared before international service organizations such as the Lions, the Kiwanis and the Rotary to speak about the drug problem. In 1985, she used her international connections to invite 17 First Ladies from foreign countries to a drug summit in Washington and Atlanta.

It is remarkable just how well the campaign worked. The press became much more favorable to Nancy Reagan....The most remarkable change, however, was in public opinion polls. A New York Times/CBS New[s] poll in January 1985 found that Mrs. Reagan's popularity was greater than even the President's (72 percent to 62 percent), and an NBC News poll found her approval/disapproval ratio at nearly eight-to-one (69 percent to nine percent)....When respondents were asked what they most admired about her, the most frequent answer was that she supports the President and acts like a First Lady should (emphasis added).

Thus, in three years, a very well organized public relation campaign that emphasized Mrs. Reagan's more compassionate and caring qualities had negated her earlier elitist image and substituted one more in touch with those of average Americans. In so doing, she has achieved what has eluded many First Ladies -- filling two conflicting images of what a First Lady should be.

Active And Involved But Not To The Point Of Making Her Husband Look Weak

Today, First Ladies are expected to have a certain amount of strength....She is expected to demonstrate a physical strength that will stand up to the requirements of a presidential campaign and an inner strength that allows her to withstand the scrutiny of the sometimes nosey press and public, survive political attacks against her husband, her family, and herself, and, in the event of an attack on her husband's life, bear her sorrow with dignity and grace. Therefore, the position of First Lady is one for which only strong women need apply.

Nancy Reagan's case is an interesting example of the requirement that the First Lady be strong, but not overshadow the President. At the beginning of President Reagan's [first] term, Mrs. Reagan was viewed as a California socialite, interested primarily in china patterns, designer dresses, and taking care of her husband. Feminists particularly seemed to resent Mrs. Reagan's seemingly empty-headed adoration of her husband, which came to be symbolized in the "gaze" -- that look of loving appreciation that Mrs. Reagan fastened on her husband whenever he spoke. Nancy Reagan has acknowledged the existence of such a look, but later tried to avoid it....

What makes Mrs. Reagan's case so interesting, however, is that later in the administration she was accused of dominating her husband, of having too much clout, of in effect becoming a "dragon lady." The situation came to a head in 1987 when Donald Regan was fired seemingly at the urging of Nancy Reagan, who felt that Regan was not acting in the President's best interests.

....The timing of the situation worked against Mrs. Reagan, in that the controversy erupted during the height of the investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal. The findings of the numerous investigations into the scandal painted a picture of a president who was greatly disengaged from the policy process. The First Lady's apparent involvement in the firing of Donald Regan only made the President seem weaker. New Mexico Democrat William Richardson noted this perception of weakness when he asked on the House floor, "Who is in charge? A constituent of mine asked, 'How can the President deal with the Soviets if he cannot settle a dispute between his wife and the chief of staff[?]'."...

....Nancy Reagan is not the first First Lady accused of becoming too involved in her husband's administration....Of all the modern First Ladies, Rosalynn Carter was probably the most active in her husband's presidency. In many ways ( as the Carters have acknowledged), their marriage can most accurately be thought of as a partnership. Because of their special relationship, Rosalynn Carter became involved in all aspects of the Carter presidency, from the campaign trail (where many considered her to be one of candidate Carter's best assets) to the White House (where she often sat in on cabinet meetings). As a result, her influence in the administration was widely recognized. William Shannon, writing in the New York Times, judged her the most influential First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Hugh Sidey referred to her as the second most powerful person in government....Not only did she regularly attend cabinet meetings, but she routinely held working lunches with the president at which policy matters were discussed. She served as a surrogate for the President on a trip to South America, where she discussed policy initiatives as well as attended formal dinners -- a fact that reportedly made many South American leaders very uncomfortable.

However, not all appraisals were positive. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Newsweek cited an anonymous voter as responding to a Rosalynn Carter speech with, "We didn't elect her, we elected him."....In a Newsweek column entitled "Mrs. President," Meg Greenfield explored the implications of the First Lady's trip to South America and concluded that if Rosalynn wanted a role in diplomacy, she should find a way to make herself accountable for her actions....

First Ladies are thus often caught in a dilemma that seems rooted in the ambiguity faced by modern American women who are expected to play at least two, sometimes conflicting roles in American society: mother/homemaker and worker/breadwinner. The ambivalence Americans feel about this situation may be reflected in their attitude toward activist First Ladies. We want them to be active, but often want them relegated to "soft" issues...such as aging, care of foster children, education, the arts, and the environment. It is when they leave the area of soft issues for harder issues such as foreign policy, labor, banking, and trade that the ambivalence about their role appears.

While First Lady, Nancy Reagan often crossed the line from soft to hard issues, most prominently in the area of personnel. Mrs. Reagan's involvement in the selection of personnel in the Reagan administration has been noted by almost every member of the administration who has written about their days in the White House. Michael Deaver points out that the First Lady's involvement extended back to the 1980 campaign, when she was instrumental in the firing of John Sears as the Reagan campaign chairman. Larry Speakes argues that Mrs. Reagan was influential in keeping Lynn Nofzinger from becoming press secretary (feeling he did not "fit" the image) and in removing William Clark from his position as National Security Advisor and moving him to the Department of Interior. Donald Regan felt that Mrs. Reagan was determined to oust Raymond Donovan from the Department of Labor because of his legal problems and Margaret Heckler from Health and Human Services because of the administrative difficulty she was having in running the multibillion dollar department. Regan also argues that at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, Mrs. Reagan not only wanted [CIA Director] William Casey (terminally ill at the time) to resign from office, but also suggested well-known Washington attorney William Bennett as his replacement.

Then of course there is the better known case of Chief of Staff Donald Regan, himself. Clearly, Regan felt that the First Lady pressured the President to ask him to resign; going so far (with the help of Deaver and Stuart Spencer) as to planting negative stories in out-of-town newspapers that the President was sure to read and enlisting the aid of William Rogers and Robert Strauss to help convince the President. While it can be argued that Donald Regan was hardly an unbiased source in this situation, other observers reported a similar scenario as having taken place.

In addition to the First Lady's involvement in personnel, Mrs. Reagan was also at times accused of managing the President; for example, supplying him with key phrases when he was seemingly at a loss for words -- the well-known "doing everything we can" response when the President was queried about what Americans could do to bring the Russians to the negotiating table. It is also generally acknowledged that Mrs. Reagan had a good deal of impact on the President's schedule; not only when he was recovering from his several surgeries, but also in regard to the scheduling of major events such as the Bitburg trip and the Geneva and Reykjavik summits. Less well known (and somewhat less agreed upon) was her impact on policy issues. Donald Regan suggests that the First Lady discussed budget policy with him while he was Treasury Secretary and criticized Caspar Weinberger for being too greedy for funds for the Defense Department. The following quote from an administration insider suggests just how far-reaching the First Lady's influence could be:

....Her power was everywhere, in personnel, in who rose and who fell; she was on
the phone to McFarlane about foreign affairs, on the phone nixing and okaying trips
and events, arranging to closet the President with this or that policy analyst,
calling to get the speeches earlier. She was everywhere.

While denying that she was a "dragon lady" or even a power behind the throne, Mrs. Reagan readily admits to having had a great deal of influence with her husband (especially in the area of personnel), which she used to protect [him] from people who she felt did not have his best interests at heart. In addition, she makes an interesting point when discussing the tension between the West and East Wings of the White House:

Historically, there has always been a certain amount of tension between the West
Wing where the president works, and the East Wing, where he and his wife live, and
where the first lady has her office. The West Wing has traditionally seen itself as the
sole center of power, and the men surrounding the president have resented any
assertion of independence and autonomy on the part of the first lady.

....[T]here are times [when] the First Lady might reasonably be expected to intervene to protect what she feels are the President's best interests. The question for the First Lady, however, is how to do so in a way that will not make the President appear weak. When the public perception becomes that the First Lady might really be the power behind the throne, then no matter how good her intentions, she may be hurting more than helping the President. At times Mrs. Reagan clearly gave that impression. And in politics, impressions are often at least as important as reality.


As pointed out by these examples, First Ladies, much like their husbands, are often expected to play contradictory roles. In fact, several forces are at work to ensure that this problem will grow more severe. One factor is...the First Lady's increased visibility in American politics and culture. In a mass media society that worships celebrities, First Ladies sell newspapers and magazines and attract television viewers....

Another, even larger problem is that the ambivalence First ladies face seem[s] to be reflective of the greater ambivalence in American culture about the role of women....Until...agreement is reached that acknowledges that women can play a variety of roles, any First Lady is liable to contradict one or more element[s] of society's view of First Ladies....

A third problem faced by First Ladies is the unelected status of their position. When combined with the lack of constitutional definition of their duties, First Ladies are left wide open to criticism such as that levied by William Safire against Nancy Reagan:

Supported in her power playing by her bloated, expensive, East Wing staff, she is
the costliest "volunteer" in the budget. But taxpayers have no recourse; the First
ladyship is the only Federal office from which the holder can neither be fired nor impeached.

....As a result, First Ladies will have to continue to muddle through, attempting to satisfy all of the people, but many times, like Nancy Reagan, satisfying only a very few or perhaps no one at all.