Barack Obama, biography, Democrat, Donald Regan, Family Guy, First Lady, Iran-Contra, Joan Quigley, Just Say No, My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Presidential memoir, Republican, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, The Audacity of Hope, There You Go Again, Ulysses S. Grant, William Novak
I find it odd and amusing that despite the fact that I’m a Democrat I spend fair amount of time reading about Republicans. Now before the reader believes that this tendency is some sort of Sun Tsu “know thy enemy” strategy I can assure you that that isn’t it. It’s not entirely it. When I wrote my review about the book Tear Down This Wall: A City, A President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War, I mentioned that the character of Ronald Reagan many people experience is often a cartoon character rather than the man himself, and in my desire to know the man further I decided to read My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan. Because after all I’m told wives know a fair amount about their husbands, even if they’re involved in politics.
My first exposure to the memoir was an episode of Family Guy when Stewie is reading the book, attempting to read it, while the family performs karaoke with their new dog aptly named New Brian. It’s an easy detail to miss given the fact most people don’t pay attention to titles of books characters read in art despite the fact that Alison Bechdel has made a career and won a McArthur Genius grant doing just that. It’s a small little detail that you observe, laugh at (or don’t) and move on. And to be honest I did. I didn’t know or care who Nancy Reagan was, and after I found out I shrugged my shoulders and went on about my life. Politicians weren’t worth my time, nor were their wives. It was only a few years later when my little sister began taking an American diplomacy class and described Miss Nancy Reagan as, to quote her directly, “Saucy” that I began to care more and more about the woman. After Tear Down This Wall, and a few more references to her in American Dad and Narcos, I decided it was about time I looked the book up, and sure enough at a book fair I was able to pick it up, easily recognizable with its solid red body and bright yellow letters, for fifty cents at a book fair.
Now for the most part there are two reasons that people involved in politics write memoirs or books. The first reason is gain political momentum. That’s just a fancy-pants way of saying public attention and sometimes sympathy. At the moment I’m reading The Audacity of Hope by President Barack Obama which was written before he ran and was still a senator. The book was designed to lay out his ideas of what politics should be, visions for the future, an opportunity to disagree here and there with the Bush administration, and finally of course to get his name and face out to the public. It worked, and while writing a book is not a promise of election many politicians, both republican and democrat alike, continue to advocate this policy as a means of self-promotion. The second reason is if you have won election, you are part of history and people want to know what you thought, what you did, why you did whatever you did, and whether you stand by what you did. The political memoir can be traced back as far as Ulysses S. Grant who, with a little help from Mark Twain, was able to sell his biography of his time in the White House for great profit. It has become a tradition since President Truman, and now the Presidential memoir is a genre of writing to itself.
Nancy Reagan’s My Turn is a bit of an oddity then, for often the wives of Presidents occupy a complex position in American politics. She describes it herself early in the book:
Part of the problem is that while the president’s job is clearly defined, nobody really knows exactly what the first lady is supposed to do. The Constitution doesn’t mention the president’s wife, and she has no official duties. As a result, each incoming first lady has had to define the job for herself.
Once upon a time, the President’s wife was seen and not heard. But there have always been exceptions, and ever since Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady has become not only more visible but more active as well. (57).
This has certainly become the case and there are few first ladies, apart from Eleanor Roosevelt whom she mentions, besides Nancy Reagan that have been so prominent in the cultural consciousness. The fact that her name summons the phrases “Just Say No” and “Dragon Lady” speaks to the social impact she made on American society. Nancy has, in some ways become a cartoon character much like her husband however like many first ladies the legacy of the man she was married to tended to steal most of the focus. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
My Turn is an attempt recount many of the moments that took place during the Regan administration however the first 222 pages don’t even deal with actual administration policies and conflicts. She begins with the Hinckley assassination attempt that placed Reagan in the hospital and follows that with addressing many of the scandals that dogged the administration, many of them related either to her clothes, her use of astrology, and her decisions to redecorate the East Wing of the White House. It’s in these opening chapters that the character of Nancy Reagan, or at least the most interesting aspects of her character, appear to the reader and to be honest the book reads like a conversation between Nancy and the reader.
I knew beginning the read that during her husband’s term as President she consulted with an astrologer and she dedicates an entire chapter to explaining and attempting to validate that decision. She explains:
My relationship with Joan Quigley began as a crutch, one of several ways I tried to alleviate my anxiety about Ronnie. Within a year or two, it had become a habit, something I relied on a little less but didn’t see the need to change. While I was never certain that Joan’s astrological advice was helping to protect Ronnie, the fact was that nothing like March 30 ever happened again.
Was astrology one of the reasons? I don’t really believe it was, but I don’t really believe it wasn’t. But I do know this: It didn’t hurt, and I’m not sorry I did it. (47).
To quote the homeless man who shouts at people whenever they leave my town’s Michael’s, “You go girl.”
Nancy’s memoir serves a unique political function in that often her closeness with the President was seen as suspect and the book serves to demonstrate that she played no real role in any policy decisions. The reader is able to decide for themselves whether or not to believe her. As for myself it’s a difficult position. Nancy the cartoon character is funny and interesting to watch, “Just Say No” didn’t work miserably and it’s hilarious to listen to people involved with that program talk about their own drug use at that time, but that may be because I’m of a different generation that didn’t see her in the White House. It’s easy to look upon the behavior of those figures of history as being behind us and dismiss them, until we see their like in our own times. Given the fact that Nancy had suffered tremendously from “Ronnie’s” assassination attempt I can’t hold it too much against her for coping the best way she could, though I might have suggested bourbon, or Long Island ice teas (I’ve never had either of these but I’m told it helps grown-ups with grown-up problems). Reading My Turn I often did feel sympathetic to Nancy Reagan as a woman in a difficult position, but as the book continues I began to raise my eyebrow more and more.
There is no real mention of the Challenger blowing up, however there is a photo of the funeral service, and an entire chapter is dedicated to the issue of Ronald Reagan’s second Chief-of-staff (boss of the employees that serve the President, think Leo from West Wing and then CJ which I was a little worried about at first but it really worked wonders for her character and everything and god that was such a great show and I just realized I’m ranting I do apologize) Donald Regan. She describes his bullying nature and how almost everyone except “Ronnie” was able to see it but him. One of the more “suspect” passages is her reaction to the Iran-Contra scandal:
If Ronnie was incredulous, I was furious. Later that evening I called Don Regan from my office to let him know how upset I was. I felt very strongly that Ronnie had been badly served, and I wanted Don to know. Maybe this was unfair of me, but to some extent I blamed him for what happened. He was chief of staff, and if he didn’t know, I thought, he should have. A good chief of staff has sources everywhere. He should practically be able to smell what’s going on. (318).
She goes on later discussing the formation of the Tower Commission which looked into the affair saying:
Despite the inevitable comparisons, Iran-Contra was not Watergate, and the Reagan White House was not the Nixon White House. By dealing with the problem openly, Ronnie may have saved his presidency. (319).
If this hints of the usual tripe of politicians defending bad choices and corruption then that serves as a test of the reader’s good intuition about politics in general, however I will play devil’s advocate, a poor metaphor for this situation, and defend Nancy Reagan as far as to say that by the time these two passages appear she has given nothing but herself and beliefs to the reader. While I feel that the last few chapters of the memoir build toward a kind of anti-climax (though the light saber duel with Fidel Castro set to Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries would have been a great chapter to keep in the final draft) there is still the initial foundation of her character as a woman and as a wife. In many ways My Turn is not so much a memoir of the Reagan presidency from the point of view of the first lady, but is in fact a recording of a love affair between two people of influence.
My Turn possesses numerous glimpses into the real intimacy that took place between Nancy and “Ronnie.” One small passage in the final chapter provides one the best examples:
The day before the summit began, Ronnie and I had a tour of Fleur d’Eau, the twenty-room nineteenth-century château overlooking Lake Leman, where the talks were going to take place. When we walked into the meeting room, Ronnie sat down in his chair, and I impulsively sat in Gorbachev’s. Ronnie looked over at me and smiled. “My, Mr. General Secretary,” he said. “You’re much prettier than I expected.” (340).
The author would like it to be known that after he finished typing this his kitten Thomas O’Malley hopped up into his lap and said, “Daawwww, that’s sweet.” The author has elected to no longer consume mushrooms when writing about conservative romances, but does completely agree that this moment is adorable and stories like this abound in My Turn as Nancy relates one of the happiest couples that ever seems to have walked this earth.
My Turn comes across as a soft-historical record, but I won’t condemn the book for this. Anyone looking to My Turn for a solid historical account of the Reagan Presidency will have to look elsewhere (may I recommend avoiding the book Dutch, Edmund Morris has written better), instead the book offers itself as a glimpse into the life of a woman who found her soul mate. She explains it outright:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it once again: My life didn’t really begin until I met Ronnie. (93).
From this line the memoir ceases to be about Nancy’s career as an actress or defending her choice to wear Adolofo (which happens to be an inside joke between my sister and I and also what eventually led us to discover a sweet picture of President Obama walking Nancy Reagan around the White House) and the rest of the book becomes about the life she built with Ronald Reagan…and then in many ways becomes about just that. My only real problem with My Turn is the fact that as the book goes on “Ronnie” seems to become more and more important to the point that Nancy spends more time writing about her husband than she does about herself. In one passage she describes the Carter/Reagan debate:
When it was Ronnie’s turn to respond, he smiled at Carter with a look of mock exasperation, shook his head, and said, “There you go again.” For millions of viewers, that phrase said it all. Carter may have been well informed, but there was something grim and moralistic about him that made people feel bad. “There you go again” quickly entered the language, and a few weeks after the election, when Ronnie used it again in a White House Press Conference, he brought the house down. (219).
After reading this passage again I found the clip on YouTube and watching it everything about Nancy’s commentary is correct, but the larger question becomes, why is that important to her? Why should I care about Ronald Reagan’s contribution to the zeitgeist rather than her own? What did Nancy do? How did my cat learn English and why does he have an opinion about Conservative republicans? Looking at all of these questions I believe it goes back to the beginning with her observation about the first lady. America doesn’t elect the wives of Presidents, and their presence so close to them is a bit unnerving to the collected populace. The American people have come to look upon the first lady in a kind of binary way. They become either the doting housewife tending to the President between difficult times and decisions, or else activists on their own pushing their own agendas, often in a softened “feminine” manner. Nancy Reagan was an oddity to this tradition, for while her media presence was often that of a caring wife first, she was a strong woman. My little sister’s favorite story about her involves a trip she and Ronnie took to Paris when they found out Nixon was also in Paris. The way she describes it Ronnie and Nixon were friends and he wanted to “hang out with his buddy” but Nancy said no because she felt Nixon would be a bad influence and tarnish Ronnie’s public persona.
Nancy Reagan was sometimes called the “Dragon Lady” for her forceful attitude, and in some ways that comes through the book, but like Tear Down This Wall this book provides an insight into the real woman beneath the cartoon character that has been drawn over her. Nancy Reagan’s memoir is a political biography and so every part of this book will be scrutinized and to be honest by the end I felt that the book was more of a love song to Ronald Reagan than it was an honest attempt to chronicle her life as the first lady, and to be honest the last half of the book begins to drag on the reader as she simply cites passages from her diary rather than narrate what was happening which, pardon my candor, feels like a cop out. Still, when I closed the book I did not feel that I had been preached to about politics for 300 pages. Instead I had listened to another human being describe their experiences, emotions, and final thoughts about one of the most strange and difficult but still wonderful periods in their life.
And if nothing else I learned that Nancy Reagan is quite possibly the only woman that could, and still can, pull off an all red pantsuit ensemble and make it look amazing.
I haven’t even tackled the issue of Nancy Reagan’s strained relationship with Raisa Gorbachev but once you get close to that 3000 word mark people stop giving a shit. But then again if you really want to know what happens the book’s still around.
I just had the strangest dream. My cat was talking and I wrote a review of a biography of a conservative Republican…man I gotta stop drinking. What’s this on my computer?