The World of Make-Believe: Nancy Reagan in the White House

It’s true that Mrs. Reagan has an interest in astrology.

— Marlin Fitzwater, New York Times, May 4, 1988

What is expected of America’s first ladies?  Having deposed the king as a suitable head of state, the American Revolutionaries decided to go for a pseudo-aristocratic option with all the spousal trimmings. After a brief flirt with the idea that George Washington might himself be crowned, the Republican model was embraced.  The standard White American Male would come with a standard White American Female and inhabit what would, in due course, be the White House.

The curriculum vitae of such a first lady has altered with time.  Lady Bird Johnson prompted syndicated columnist Max Freedman to wonder whether her campaigning on her husband’s behalf marked “the emergence of women as central figures in a national contest instead of being on the edges of a campaign.”

None of this mattered with the late Nancy Reagan, whose role is already being given the cosmetic makeover and fashion re-design she so desperately sought herself.  Her role is being touted as that of carer for her ailing husband, a defender of the ill, a reminder of glory days. For all that, the BBC would still remark that she “was one of the most influential first ladies in US history”.

Many of the tributes have reflected on her role as first lady, though these are decidedly guarded when not gushing.  According to President Barack Obama, she “redefined the role in her time here”. He spared those bothering to read his statement the details about what that transformation entailed, preferring to focus on her role in becoming “a voice on behalf of millions of families going through the depleting, aching reality of Alzheimer’s”.

More to the point, the Ronald and Nancy Reagan show, when it arrived in Washington in 1980, announced to the world that thespianism had well and truly come to Washington.  As Gore Vidal noted with customary bite, Nancy, on her arrival, wooed “Washington’s old guard, the Bright Old Things as they are dubbed”. The BOT establishment were charmed, then bemused by the couple’s absolute disregard for power, politics, history, literature or art.

Not even the valiant efforts of The National Review editor William J. Buckley, Jr. could dispel that suggestion, though he was closer to the mark in observing that the first lady was not “by any means simply the silent female appendage some people so mistakenly suppose her to be.” She had firm “positions, stated and unstated, on most (a) people, (b) issues, and (c) matters.”

What did matter to the first lady, apart from protecting Ronnie from wicked influences, were such things as redecoration and the whole show.  Appearance was everything, evidenced by her advice to current first lady Michelle Obama to have as many state dinners as possible. The White House kept her busy, as did designer dresses in the order of $1m. There was little chance here of “trickle down” economics in her view of the world.  Everything would be flowing her way, whatever the supply side economists were going to say.

A troubling conduit for Nancy’s influence over White House and presidency was astrology, though previous presidencies had not been immune from an interest in it.  She expressed her reasons for turning to astrology in her memoir, My Turn (1989).  Resorting to extra-terrestrial forces and the coded messages of star signs was prompted by an assassination attempt on husband Ronald.  “I’m scared every time he leaves the house,” she explained to the anointed astrologer and confidante Joan Quigley. In May 1988, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater would confirm that fact to the press corps, though the Reagan love affair with astrology went back to their California days.

For her part, Quigley was delighted, feeling a swollen pride that comes through in her tedious What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years as White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan (1990). The document acts as both dump and revelation, revealing that Quigley influenced the timing of press conferences, “most speeches, the State of the Union addresses, the takeoffs and landings of Air Force One.”

The papers at the time acknowledged this uncomfortable extension of astrological persuasiveness in the White House inner circle, though it was perfectly in accord with the casual indifference of the couple to the serious dimension of politics.  Hollywood and astrology were hardly alien to each other, both being fabrications of illusion.

The New York Post suggested that Quigley was, in no small part, running the establishment with her astral meddlesomeness, while Nancy, finding herself exposed, suggested that no such dominance was ever established.  “While astrology was a factor in determining Ronnie’s schedule,” she countered, “it was never the only one, and no political decision was ever based on it.”

In terms of plausibility, Quigley’s account has it over Nancy.  The White House staffers, perplexed and then concerned, received the first lady’s ire when scepticism entered discussions and the operations of the rumour mill.  The autocratic Chief of Staff Donald Regan was dismissed by first lady diktat in February 1987, something she claimed was instigated by advice from then Vice President George H. W. Bush.  Along with adviser Michael Deaver, she duly encouraged Democratic National Committee Chairman Robert Strauss to persuade the president about Regan’s faults.

Regan, from his perspective, smarted enough at this palace coup to aim at the Reagan presidency in his own For the Record (1988).  Time and time again, he claimed, the astrologer was there to guide Nancy’s decisions, be it her husband’s operation and health, to the issue of the Iran-contra scandal.

“It’s no secret that [she] wanted to get rid of me.  She thought I was bringing the President down and apparently didn’t care for me personally.  She fanned the flames of bad publicity.” As Public Relations Queen, she would do all to protect the Great Communicator, conceal the state of his health, and poison relations when needed.

The passing of this last half of the Reagan duo was bound to give some Republicans the leaky eye.  As with eyes filled with moisture, sight is blurred and clarity eschewed.  The GOP presidential nominee of 2012, Mitt Romney, spoke of the Reagans as that couple who, with “charm, grace, and a passion for America… reminded us of the greatness and the endurance of the American experiment.”

That experiment, for the most part, was the most daring of illusions, unsurprisingly centred on the bringing of Hollywood to the White House. Political and economic reality was entirely subverted, being for other people, and the world of make-believe, a title aptly deployed in Laurence Leamer’s book by that title on the Reagans, triumphed.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.