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To my husband, Paul, and our sons, Nick and Jack


Reagan knew where he wanted to go, but she had a better sense of what he needed to do to get there.






President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

The second weekend of February 1983 found much of the Eastern Seaboard trapped by one of the biggest snowfalls of the century. Dubbed the Megalopolitan Blizzard, it caught forecasters off guard. The nation’s capital, notoriously ill-equipped for extreme weather, was paralyzed under a frozen blanket seventeen inches deep. In suburban areas, the snow was twice as heavy, hitting new records. All of this meant the president and first lady had to cancel their plans to go to Camp David on Friday afternoon as they customarily did. But even though they were stuck in the White House for the duration, there were delights to be had as the most self-important city in the world bent to the will of Mother Nature. When the blinding storm yielded to brilliant sunshine, Washington took on the feel of an Alpine village. Beyond the edge of the South Lawn, hundreds of people in parkas and wool caps were getting around on cross-country skis.

George P. Shultz, only seven months into his tenure as secretary of state, had just returned the previous Thursday from a long trip to Asia, which included a stop in China. Coming back, he had barely beaten the storm. The first flakes were falling as his government plane touched down at Andrews Air Force Base. On Saturday afternoon, as Washington began digging out, Shultz got a call from Nancy Reagan. “Why don’t you and your wife come over and have supper with us?” she asked. There would be just the four of them, upstairs in the White House family quarters.

“So, we go over, and we’re having a nice time, and then all of a sudden the president and Nancy—both of them—are asking me about the Chinese leaders: What are they like as people? Do they have a sense of humor? Can you find their bottom line? Do they really have a bottom line?” Shultz recalled. From there, the conversation moved on to the Soviet Union, and the president began to talk about his own ideas for engaging America’s superpower enemy. Shultz was struck by how much Ronald Reagan had thought about this; how self-confident he sounded about his abilities as a negotiator. And then suddenly the new secretary of state realized that the purpose of the evening was not entirely social. Nancy had planned it so that Shultz would begin to understand something important about her husband—something that had the potential to change history.

“I’m sitting there, and it’s dawning on me: this man has never had a real conversation with a big-time Communist leader and is dying to have one. Nancy was dying for him to have one,” Shultz told me, still marveling at the moment more than thirty years later. Until that dinner, he had not really been sure that such a dialogue was possible. This, after all, was a president who had branded the Soviet Union as ruthless and immoral, and who was presiding over the biggest peacetime military buildup in US history. The Reagan administration, except for a few figures like Shultz, was populated by hard-liners who believed there could never be any such thing as a working relationship with Moscow. Did Ronald Reagan really see himself as the unlikely peacemaker who could lift the shadow of potential nuclear annihilation under which the entire planet had lived for nearly four decades? As Nancy Reagan would later put it: “For years, it had troubled me that my husband was always being portrayed by his opponents as a warmonger, simply because he believed, quite properly, in strengthening our defenses.… The world had become too small for the two superpowers not to be on speaking terms, and unless that old perception about Ronnie could be revised, nothing positive was likely to happen.”

Shultz began to understand something else that night: he had found an invaluable ally in a first lady who understood her husband as no one else did—who was, in fact, the only person in the world to whom the president was truly close. In the years that followed, he would grow to appreciate more the unseen role that she played in protecting and shaping the Reagan presidency. Nancy rarely set foot in the West Wing, but her presence was felt by everyone who worked there. When she was displeased about something, they all knew it, and those who were not in her good graces tended not to last for long.

“She watched the people around, both in the White House and around in the Cabinet. She had a pretty good idea who was really serving himself or herself and who was working for the president,” Shultz said. “I always thought anybody with any brains would make a friend of the first lady.”

Ronald Reagan was endowed with enormous gifts: vision, ambition, optimism, and an ability to make the country believe in itself. He also enjoyed the benefit of being perpetually underestimated. But it was Nancy, wary by nature, who was the shrewder judge of people. Their son, Ron Reagan, described his mother as the skeptic—and the enforcer—that his ingenuous father needed to succeed in a business as cynical and opportunistic as politics. “My father was as good a man as you’ll find in politics, or life for that matter. Very easygoing, very easy with people, very trusting of

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