Former AP reporter recalls Nancy Reagan

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Posted: Mar 06, 2016 7:29 PM
Former AP reporter recalls Nancy Reagan

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — Nancy Reagan seemed alarmed in the fall of 1988 when she saw me staking out the multimillion-dollar Bel-Air estate that became the post-presidential home for the former president and first lady.

The president was delivering a speech that evening at the Century Plaza Hotel and I was tipped that Mrs. Reagan was stopping to look at the gated home at 666 Saint Cloud Rd. (She later had the devilish number changed to 668.)

After a half-hour in the home, the gates swung open and the Secret Service-driven station wagon pulled away, with Mrs. Reagan giving me a smile and wave.

Years later, while she led me through the refurbished Ronald Reagan presidential suite atop the Century Plaza, Mrs. Reagan confirmed the 40th president was crouched down in the station wagon that day. She wanted him to see where they would be living but didn't want him seen.

It was typical of the close control she had on her beloved husband, and her wariness of the media.

The post-White House years for the Reagans were my responsibility. It was a heady assignment for someone who had joined the Navy in part because of the film "Hellcats of the Navy," which starred the Reagans.

While touring the special Reagan suite at the Century Plaza, Mrs. Reagan was thrilled to see a video of that film playing on a TV. She told me the president loved to stay in the suite (he later had a post-presidential office in the high-rise next door) and Reagan would often make paper airplanes and toss them off the balcony.

From the minute they moved back to California, Mrs. Reagan guarded their privacy. In all the years I covered her, we never had an extended conversation. It wasn't her style to let outsiders into their world.

Mrs. Reagan would occasionally let down her guard. Once, there was a gathering of former first ladies at an Indian Wells fundraising dinner for the Betty Ford Center, and I watched as Mrs. Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Mrs. Reagan and Barbara Bush waited for the arrival of then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was late because of an important floor vote in Washington.

Mrs. Reagan grew more impatient as the hours went by. Finally, she looked at me and tersely said: "I'm starving." I offered to get her something but she demurred.

During Betty Ford's funeral in Palm Desert years later, Mrs. Reagan was on the arm of former President George W. Bush at the end of the service and she tugged hard and scolded, "Slow down." I'll never forget Bush's sheepish expression.

In 1992, I was the only reporter at the Reagan's Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara County when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, stopped for a visit. The Reagans were proud of their adobe retreat and hundreds of acres with horses, a lake and towering oak trees.

Mrs. Reagan smiled when Gorbachev shook his head in disbelief upon seeing his onetime Cold War adversary had his own Chevron gas pump next to the tack house. She had a similar prideful look when she stepped off a military helicopter on the aircraft deck of the new USS Ronald Reagan, which has a mini-museum honoring the president.

Mrs. Reagan was the gatekeeper of the Reagan legacy, showing up year after year for Ronald Reagan Presidential Library board meetings, dignitary speeches and special events while her husband's Alzheimer's disease progressed. Whenever I asked about the president, she would only say, "He's fine."

She was his caretaker for a decade until his death in 2004. The memory of her sobs and kissing her husband's casket before it was lowered into the grave are etched in my mind.

When I retired in 2013, Mrs. Reagan sent me a letter. She noted I had been present for many of the high and lows of her life and her husband's, and she thanked me for my professionalism. She wished me "all the success and happiness" in whatever life had in store.

And, then still an arm's length away, she signed it "sincerely" Nancy Reagan.

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This story corrects the spelling of Rosalynn Carter's name.