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Former First Lady Nancy Reagan Dies At 94


We have heard many words and appreciation of Nancy Reagan. Let's hear what Ronald Reagan thought. Historian Douglas Brinkley edited a book of President Ronald Reagan's diaries. He joins us on this Monday after the first lady died at age 94. Mr. Brinkley, welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: He's in Austin, Texas. What did the president say about Nancy?

BRINKLEY: You know, I was amazed. Here I got these daily diaries of a president of the United States. He wrote every single day except for a few when he was shot in 1981. And low and behold, wherever you looked, there was Nancy Reagan. He was writing about what she did, what she looked like. But most noticeably, when she would leave the White House, even for a day, he would be in deep mourning, constantly waiting for her to get back. And the net effect of reading it all, the takeaway, was that it was quite a - not just a love relationship but a co-dependent marriage.

INSKEEP: I am especially struck by you saying that he talked about how she looked. He continued to see this person who was in front of him all the time - I mean, really, really see her. That's what you're saying, right?

BRINKLEY: Yes, he did. And, you know, it's hard for politicians or presidents to trust people. And of course he didn't just trust Nancy Reagan. She was his eyes and ears. He - by nature, Ronald Reagan was very gregarious, liked people, tried to be warmhearted. And she was somebody who could read the calculus differently. She could tell if somebody was backstabbing her husband or had their own agenda. And she became quite formidable because she controlled a lot of who got access to the president and who didn't.

INSKEEP: Was she a politician in her own right then?

BRINKLEY: No, she was not. She was a kind of ardent loyalist of her husband, even more so than being a mother of four children. Everything was for Ronnie. And she became exceedingly adept as first lady of California when Ronald Reagan was governor and then in Washington of kind of having her own style but always first and foremost doing what was in her husband's best interest.

INSKEEP: Wasn't she the gatekeeper who gave you access to these diaries some years ago?

BRINKLEY: She was. I met - Mrs. Reagan liked some of my work. And I met her in Beverly Hills. And she eventually gave me the entire diaries. And what I was very taken by is she wanted them all opened. It ended up being a few passages got classified due to information about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. But she wanted it all open and kind of went to the map for me to make sure whatever her husband wrote was available and declassified. And she in general was the impresario of the Reagan Library, where she's going to be buried in Simi Valley. She worked on all the programs there, planning committee, regularly would show up. And really it's the lasting legacy of the Reagans are at that library in Southern Cal.

INSKEEP: Do you remember anything in particular that she said about the president that she was married to or about her time in the White House?

BRINKLEY: She glared at me at one point when I first got the diaries and it came up again. She really said, I have one ground rule - never say what my husband would have done. He was a pragmatic conservative, but he was pragmatic. And I can't stand it when people go on television and I hear them saying Ronald Reagan would be doing, you know, this or that when they didn't know Ronnie and they don't know what he would have done.

INSKEEP: Oh my goodness, she must have been hardly able to watch political television at all then.

BRINKLEY: Yeah, well, exactly. And I - for me that was a great ground rule because I said, yes, I'm a historian, and I want it done -I'm not - that's not my thing. I don't put words in people's mouths or say what they would have done. So it ended up being a fine and wonderful relationship. And really there was not a hiccup in it.

INSKEEP: Historian Douglas Brinkley on the occasion of Nancy Reagan's death. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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