In a just released book, “Lady in Red,” Sheila Tate tells how former first lady Nancy Reagan was referred to as The Dragon Lady and was seen as cold, snobbish and standoffish. But, in fact, she was actually just the opposite. Tate, who was the former first lady’s press secretary for the first four years of the administration, describes Nancy as reserved, thoughtful and soft-spoken, with a great sense of humor.
Readers will get an insight into her loyalty, sense of humor and dedication to country, a first lady who made an impact. The book is a nice collection of memories, stories and thoughts by those who worked closest with her, and who want people to understand that Nancy Reagan had much more depth and grace than she was ever given credit for.
Elise Cooper: Why write the book now?
Sheila Tate: Nancy and I became close personal friends after I left the White House. At her memorial service, many people came up to me and said, “We wish others saw her like we did.” This planted a seed and the result is this book.
EC: It seems there are a lot of similarities between her and Jackie Kennedy?
ST: Both had grace, a strong sense of humor that was not seen very often publicly, and was criticized for their expensive wardrobe. Jackie wrote Nancy a letter shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected president, and was one of the first people to call Nancy after the election to give her the benefit of her experience. After that private meeting both met several more times and Nancy told of how much she appreciated what Jackie did. I think they really liked each other.
Compare that to when the Clintons were elected. Nancy reached out to Hillary, writing her a personal note and offering to help the new first lady in any way she could. Nancy told me Hillary never even responded and said she would have absolutely no use for her after that.
EC: Please explain how Nancy Reagan brought the media elite to their feet?
ST: I wanted to write this because it describes Nancy’s ability to make fun of herself with such a great sense of humor. She changed her image overnight with her surprise appearance on stage at the Gridiron Club. It hosts an annual dinner where various members of the press and elected officials have skits and speeches that usually make fun of people.
I knew Nancy was going to be the target and they were going to hammer her. The reporters were going to sing a song mocking her as they changed the lyrics to “Second Hand Rose.” Some of the words, “I never wear a rock more than just once. I sure miss Rodeo Drive. We’re living like kings. So what if Ronnie’s cutting back on welfare.”
I suggested she dress up as someone with no taste in fashion and we keep it a secret from most everyone including the president. She was all in to come onstage and sing our own version. As applause for the press started, Nancy came onstage behind a rack of clothes. She is wearing plaids and stripes, colors that do not match, a raggedy hat and rubber boots, mismatched and ill-fitting clothes.
Some of the words she sang, “Even my new trench coat with fur collar, Ronnie bought for 10 cents on the dollar. Second hand gowns, And old hand-me downs.”
She rehearsed that constantly even keeping President Reagan from knowing. After she finished there was the demand for an encore in which she obliged. She was just masterful. The president was so excited and laughed heartily.
EC: Everyone knows of the quote by JFK about Jackie, “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I enjoyed it.” But can you explain what happened with the Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping?
ST: He actually flirted with her, inviting her to return to visit again, but without President Reagan. He also thanked her personally for launching a campaign where children across the U.S. collected and sent pennies to her for the Chinese Pandas. The children’s contribution went toward buying bamboo, which was in short supply in China.
EC: You confirm that Nancy and Ronald Reagan had true love?
ST: Both made sure each came first in their lives, and would share and learn what the other was interested in. They were totally committed to each other. She would put limits on his schedule understanding that he needed breaks and would insist that he had lunch without interference. She only had his interest in mind and would put bounds on those who had never ending demands.
EC: Nancy Reagan was one of the first to use her power to make an impact on an issue important to her.
ST: She had a deep commitment to ending drug abuse and refused the staff suggestions to pursue an alternative. Her answer, “If I am going to pursue something four to eight years, it has to be something I care about.”
I think after a dear friend lost a daughter to drugs she took up the mantle. She took the spotlight that shined on her and turned it around to have it shine on this issue. It was important to Nancy to try and prevent young children from experimenting with drugs.
She did not stop here, but enlisted the first ladies help around the globe. They attended a conference together in Atlanta and met again at the United Nations.
EC: What was her relationship with the press?
ST: Nancy Reagan was very much her own person. For example, she stood her ground when asked about the Equal Rights Amendment. Although she did favor equal rights for women, she was against a Constitutional Amendment.
Yet, there were other instances when she played the press. At a wedding where there was a majority of liberals, after the Reagans had left office, she was asked to dance by a lesbian. Nancy did not skip a beat, but responded, “Only if you lead,” and proceeded to dance.
EC: What do you want people to get out of this book?
ST: I am hoping that this will highlight the extraordinary impact she had as a first lady. But also, will show how she was a target for criticism and scrutinized so much, yet was able to gain the respect and to win over many of the White House press corps.