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Lady in Red
An Intimate Portrait of Nancy Reagan
Sheila Tate

Crown Forum
April 3, 2018/ ISBN 9781524762193
Nonfiction /Biography

Reviewed by Elise Cooper


In a just released book, Lady in Red, Sheila Tate tells how Nancy Reagan was referred to as The Dragon Lady and seen as cold, snobbish, and standoffish. But, in fact, she was actually just the opposite.

Tate, who was the former First Lady’s Press Secretary for the first four years of the administration, describes Nancy as reserved, thoughtful, and soft-spoken, with a great sense of humor. She noted, “Nancy and I became close personal friends after I left the White House. At her Memorial Service, many people came up to me and said, ‘we wish others saw her like we did.’ This planted a seed and the result is this book.”

There are a lot of similarities between her and another First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. Both had grace, a strong sense of humor that was not seen very often publicly, and were criticized for their expensive wardrobe. Tate tells of how Jackie wrote Nancy a letter shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected President. “Jackie was one of the first people to call Nancy after the election to give her the benefit of her experience. After that private meeting, both met several more times and Nancy told of how much she appreciated what Jackie did. I think they really liked each other. Compare that to when the Clintons were elected. Nancy reached out to Hillary, writing her a personal note and offering to help the new First Lady in any way she could. Nancy told me Hillary never even responded and said she would have absolutely no use for her after that.”

One of the best recollections in the book is when Nancy brought the media elite to their feet. “I wanted to write this because it describes Nancy’s ability to make fun of herself with such a great sense of humor. She changed her image overnight with her surprise appearance on stage at the Gridiron Club. It hosts an annual dinner where various members of the press and elected officials have skits and speeches that usually make fun of people. I knew Nancy was going to be the target and they were going to hammer her. The reporters were going to sing a song mocking her as they changed the lyrics to ‘Second Hand Rose.’ Some of the words, ‘I never wear a rock more than just once. I sure miss Rodeo Drive. We’re living like kings. So what if Ronnie’s cutting back on welfare.’ I suggested she dress up as someone with no taste in fashion and we keep it a secret from most everyone including the President. She was all in to come onstage and sing our own version. As applause for the press started, Nancy came onstage behind a rack of clothes. She is wearing plaids and stripes, colors that do not match, a raggedy hat and rubber boots, mismatched and ill-fitting clothes. Some of the words she sang, ‘Even my new trench coat with fur collar, Ronnie bought for ten cents on the dollar. Second hand gowns, And old hand-me downs.’ She rehearsed that constantly even keeping President Reagan from knowing. After she finished there was the demand for an encore in which she obliged. She was just masterful. The President was so excited and laughed heartily.”

Another comparison is how Jackie and Nancy were defacto diplomats. Most everyone remembers the famous line by JFK about Jackie while in Paris, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I enjoyed it.” But many do not know of the line by Premier Deng Xiaoping when the Reagans traveled to China. Tate recalls, “He actually flirted with her, inviting her to return to visit again, but without President Reagan. He also thanked her personally for launching a campaign where children across the US collected and sent pennies to her for the Chinese Pandas. The children’s contribution went toward buying bamboo, which was in short supply in China.”

Nancy Reagan was one of the first to use her power to make an impact on an issue important to her. A book quote explains, “Once a First Lady recognizes her power to influence opinions she learns to draw her audience in and, before they know it, make them her allies.” She had a deep commitment to ending drug abuse and refused the staff suggestions to pursue an alternative. Tate noted, “Her answer, ‘if I am going to pursue something four to eight years, it has to be something I care about.’ I think after a dear friend lost a daughter to drugs she took up the mantle. She took the spotlight that shined on her and turned it around to have it shine on this issue. It was important to Nancy to try and prevent young children from experimenting with drugs. She did not stop here but enlisted the First Ladies help around the globe. They attended a conference together in Atlanta Georgia and met again at the United Nations.”

Anyone reading this book will see the other side of Nancy Reagan. She was not only a loving wife but also a First Lady who made an impact. She even gained the respect of many in the White House press corps. This book is a glimpse into the life of a complicated woman who had much more depth and grace than she was ever given credit for.

Reviewed 2018