First ladies are often treated unkindly by the cultural attitudes of their times. The public feels perfectly free to judge the relationship of a president and his wife through a political lens, darkly, preferring the whiz of slings and arrows to the purr of love-dusted arrows dispatched from Cupid's quiver.
Nancy Reagan has been treated more harshly than some. In a 1968 profile in the Saturday Evening Post, inked in venom, Joan Didion described her as having "the smile of a good wife, a good mother, a good hostess, the smile of someone who grew up in comfort and went to Smith College and has... a husband who is the definition of Nice Guy not to mention governor of California, the smile of a woman who seems to be playing out some middle-class American woman's daydream, circa 1948."
This was harsh for its time, meant to be a clever putdown, but how many women (including Didion) would see it that way today as the nation mourns with Nancy Reagan the death of a beloved husband. Who (apart from the neurotic haters) has not been touched by the fortitude and grace that she has demonstrated in the care taken of her "Ronnie" through the painful, debilitating indignities of a cruel and remorseless disease?
Four years ago we were actually treated to an inside look at a great romance, when Nancy published "I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan." The president wrote these letters on the backs of telegrams, on scraps of paper, on letterheads from hotels across the country and finally on elegant White House bond, sometimes writing when they were in the same room together.
If they lack the poetry of Robert Browning or John Donne, whose love poems to their wives are the stuff of literary anthologies, they nevertheless testify to an astonishing affection that even amidst the stresses of public life connected the first couple with ardor and admiration.
Mrs. Reagan kept the letters in a shopping bag, reading them for emotional sustenance after the disease deprived her husband of an ability to express his feelings. "His letters were keepsakes in the past and have become my guardians of memory today," she writes. "They recall happy times, and, above all, they preserve the voice of the Ronnie I love." She decided to publish them when she realized that they might be filed away at the Ronald Reagan library, available only to scholars and researchers.
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