Kirsten Andersen

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My Hero, Nancy Reagan
The Case Against Feminism, Week Five

By Kirsten Andersen


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Once upon a time, I thought there were no such things as heroes.  I can be more cynical than The Cynic (another Political USA columnist), and I have never been able to idealize another human being to the point of near-worship that heroism demands.  Heroism seemed a silly idea -- old-fashioned and dangerously close to idolatry.  No, heroes were definitely not my thing--until I started following the ongoing saga of Nancy Reagan.

Mrs. Reagan was born Ann Francis Robbins on July 6, 1923.  She had a tumultuous childhood marked by her parentsí early divorce and virtual abandonment by her mother during her growing-up years.  By the time Ann was seven, her mother had slowed her acting career enough to take a more active role in Annís life.  A man named Loyal Davis married Annís mother and legally adopted the girl who would change her name first to Nancy Davis, and later to Nancy Reagan.

Nancy attended Smith College, where she was a drama major.  In the late 1940ís, she signed a seven-year contract with MGM Studios and moved to Los Angeles.  Her arrival in Hollywood was during the height of the McCarthy era, and the lifelong conservative was dismayed to discover her name on a list of suspected communist sympathizers.  It was then that she contacted Ronald Reagan, the attractive president of the Screen Actors Guild, avowed anti-communist, and recent divorcee.

Well...not really.  Nancy had (and has) way more class than that.  She actually got a friend to approach the future President about asking her to dinner.  Really classy women should not need to ask men out, as everyone knows.

Ronald Reagan did, in fact, ask Nancy out.  Despite his insistence that he had an early call and would need to cut the date short, they stayed out until three in the morning laughing and talking.  Soon they were in love, and they were married in 1952.

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Mrs. Reagan recently released a book of President Reaganís love letters to her (I Love You, Ronnie, Random House), written over a period of more than forty years.  The letters offer a picture of the President that was rarely seen in his public life -- his sentimental, vulnerable, and very mushy side.

One of the letters said: "Beginning in 1951, Nancy Davis, seeing the plight of a lonely man who didn't know how lonely he really was, determined to rescue him from a completely empty life. He sits in the Oval Office from which he can see (if he scrooches down) her window and feels warm all over
just knowing she is there."

That kind of quote is a moving admission coming from the leader of the free world.  The rest of the letters range from silly ramblings of a man too much in love to apologetic pleas from a contrite husband.  All of the letters are touching in a way that can elicit tears from even the most jaded readerís eyes.

Though I envy the love that Nancy received from her Ronnie, that is not why she has become my hero.  It is admirable, but not heroic, to be a good wife to a man who showers you with love letters and affection.  Nancy Reaganís heroism has developed since 1994, when President Reagan announced he has Alzheimerís.

Our beloved 40th President has deteriorated mentally to the point where he no doubt fails to recognize the object of his lifelong affection.  Mrs. Reagan admits that conversations with him are impossible, and she has given up showing her husband videos from his political days because he does not remember any of it.

As a former First Lady and a very wealthy woman, Mrs. Reagan could easily entrust Ronnieís care to the best in-home nurses in the world and be free to spend her days with friends and family, doing as she pleases.  Instead, she spends day after day with him in their Bel Air home, caring for the man
who no longer writes beautiful love poetry or even says hello.

Recently, a news story reported that Mrs. Reagan has forbidden President Reaganís old friends and political associates from coming to visit him.  She said it upset him that he could no longer recall the names of the people who had worked under him and for him.  (It is a testament to the enduring goodness of the man that he even cares to remember staffers he knew 20 years ago.  I wonder if, three months later, Bill Clinton remembers anyone but Monica?)

Mrs. Reaganís vigorous protection of her 90 year old husband is a powerful symbol of what commitment means.  Nancy Reagan is my hero because when she repeated the vows that joined her with another "ítil death do us part," she took them literally.  Her strength of character, ability to endure true hardship, and willingness to love endlessly with no reward are what make her, at least in my view, a true hero. 

When asked why she continues to sacrifice her Ďgolden yearsí to care for a man she no longer knows, she simply replies, "I know he would do it for me."  And it is surely the truth.  To hell with cynicism -- they are both heroes.

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Buy Books 

I Love You, Ronnie
by Nancy and Ronald Reagan

Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America

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