Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty ‘s new book, “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan” (published by Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS), explores the first lady’s skills at protecting her husband from perceived threats, underscoring her little-appreciated political savviness in aid of the Reagan presidency.

Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss Lesley Stahl’s interview with Karen Tumulty on “CBS Sunday Morning” April 11!

Simon & Schuster

If taking care of Ronnie’s physical well-being was at the top of what Nancy regarded as her chief duties as a first lady, keeping an eye on those around him was a close second. Ronnie was discomfited by infighting and uninterested in internal intrigue. Not one to nurse grudges, he was generous with offering second chances. He was also a famously detached manager, taking little interest in details so long as he believed his overall vision was being carried out. As he told Fortune magazine in 1986: “I believe, first of all, that you surround yourself with the best people you can find, and you delegate authority, and you don’t interfere.” 

Nancy approached things from the opposite point of view. For her, confidence was a precious and perishable commodity. It was to be earned, not assumed, and withdrawn at the first inkling of doubt. “I don’t get involved in how to balance the budget or how to reduce the deficit or foreign affairs or whatever, but I do get involved in people issues,” she said. “I think I’m aware of people who are trying to take advantage of my husband, who are trying to end-run him.” 

But it is among the oldest of Washington truisms that “people issues” are policy. Controlling who is in the room when there is a decision to be made or advice to be given can preordain the outcome. That is why the city’s favorite spectator sport has always been figuring out who’s in and who’s out. And no first lady in memory was more in the middle of White House personnel matters than Nancy Reagan. 

She was not the political naif that she had been when she arrived in Sacramento. After eight years as a governor’s wife and two grueling presidential campaigns, she had a far better understanding of both the extent and the limits of her power. When Betty Ford was asked where she exercised her influence, she answered: “pillow talk.” Nancy knew that she had to do far more than whisper in her husband’s ear to get her way. She picked her shots, chose with care her allies and her weapons, and learned to gauge whether patience or urgency better suited the challenge at hand. Ronnie’s personal aide, Jim Kuhn, saw Nancy in action many times. “She knew how to lay the groundwork. She knew how to put things together. She knew how far she could go with ‘Ronnie.’ She knew what she could get away with,” he said. 

Nancy acknowledged as much. “Does the president sometimes say no to me? Sure,” she told NBC’s Chris Wallace in 1985. “Does his no always end it? Not always. I’ll wait a little while; then I’ll come back at him again.” 

As the years have gone by, appreciation has grown for the role that she played in her husband’s success. Among those who have acknowledged how essential she became was Richard Neustadt, considered the preeminent scholar of the American presidency. Neustadt, a liberal, advised every Democratic president from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton and was a founder of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He saw Nancy as a vital player in Ronnie’s presidency because she had “a good ear and a fine eye.” She let neither political ideology nor personal attachment cloud her judgment in that regard. “Her husband’s close associates, however valuable or liked or even loved, were to be sacrificed, in her view, from the moment their continuation on the scene could compromise the president’s public relations,” Neustadt wrote, adding, “When it came to people, her targets seem well chosen, aim unerring, and timing right for someone who must wait for someone else to pull the trigger.” Every president, Neustadt added, would do well to follow this principle: “Never let your Nancy be immobilized.” 

From “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan” by Karen Tumulty. Copyright © 2021 by Karen Tumulty. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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