Valentines from a President

Posted: Jun 10, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Ronald Reagan was not a poet, but his handwritten words from the heart are particularly fascinating to read when cynicism mocks the meaning of marriage, when faxes take shortcuts to sentiment and e-mail abuses the language of love. In a typical letter, marking their 31st wedding anniversary and written on Air Force One letterhead, the president writes that their marriage remains "an adolescent's dream of what marriage should be like."

As a married couple, Nancy and Ronald Reagan were a throwback to an idyll of the marriage of the '40s so easily ridiculed in modern media. She was not "the power" behind the big man, but a shrewd wife determined to keep a prominent role in the background. She was pretty and poised, sharp and smart, and in her devotion to her husband she wanted never to upstage him.

The adoring look captured in so many photographs, as she stood or sat at his side, was ridiculed by the sophisticated elites but the years have revealed it to be authentic. There was clearly a current of electricity between man and woman, animating passion and respect. Theirs was the succor of soul mates.

The word "wife," the president wrote, "means a companion without whom I'm never quite complete or happy. . It means someone who can make me lonely just by leaving the room." How many wives, even partisan punditresses, wouldn't like to get a letter like these:

"I love you so much I don't even mind that life made me wait so long to find you. The waiting only made the finding sweeter." (1955)

"I live in a permanent Christmas because God gave me you." (1970)

"I more than love you, I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me." (1983)

Until Ronald Reagan began his journey with Alzheimer's to the farther reaches of joyless consciousness, he described himself as "the most married man in the world" and his wife as the "light of my life." She's alone now with her memories, but in our own mourning we take cheer with her in these intimate moments of the heart.