Once a scarlet woman, Nancy is turned into a role model

The former virago of the White House has won the sympathy of America. And she intends to use it - to promote research into her husband's illness. <i><b>Rupert Cornwell </b></i>reports
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It is not only Presidents whose reputations can soar once they leave office. So, too, can the public regard for their spouses - as attested by the transformation of how America views Nancy Reagan, once the scarlet woman of the White House, now the a wife and widow presented as a role model for a nation.

It is not only Presidents whose reputations can soar once they leave office. So, too, can the public regard for their spouses - as attested by the transformation of how America views Nancy Reagan, once the scarlet woman of the White House, now the a wife and widow presented as a role model for a nation.

Yesterday, all eyes were upon her as Ronald Reagan's coffin was taken to lie in honour in Simi Valley, in his adopted California. This Friday, as heads of state and government from around the world assemble for Washington's first Presidential state funeral since Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, she will be the face on which the cameras linger in National Cathedral.

Today, Mrs Reagan is 82 and, if allowance is made for the passage of the years, physically not very different from the First Lady who flew back west with her husband after eight years in which they had been America's equivalent of monarchy. But the country now looks on her very differently from the way it did two decades ago.

Mr Reagan himself had undergone an astonishing rehabilitation, his image gradually changing from semi-comatose Cold War warrior to the man who turned the modern Republican party into the force it is today and brought Communism to its knees. Today he is reckoned among the two or three most important US Presidents of the 20th century.

And so, in a different way, it has been with Nancy. The hard-edged virago of yesteryear has been reconfigured as a latter-day saint, nursing her husband through an especially cruel and destructive illness, a champion for the millions who suffer from Alzheimer's.

These days, it is hard to remember the old Nancy, the woman reputed to have regarded White House as an extension of a glamorous Hollywood party. Her twin obsessions were socialising and ruthlessly protecting her husband from anyone or anything of which she disapproved, even if the interests of state might dictate otherwise. If she had her doubts, she would resolve them by consulting the stars.

Between 1981 and 1989, Nancy Reagan was the First Lady of whom they walked in dread. Kitty Kelley, the queen of slash-and-burn celebrity biographers, depicted her as a Hollywood starlet with a racy past and an eye for the main chance. As Ms Kelley tells it, The young Nancy Davis set her sights on Ronald Reagan from her very first glimpse of him in 1949. She was the ambitious California governor's wife - a vain and relentless social climber, a formidable political operator and bitter enemy of anyone who crossed her. Nor, if the biography is correct, was she quite as perfect a wife as generally believed. Ms Kelley writes breathlessly of alleged White House encounters between Nancy and Frank Sinatra, which not even her husband was permitted to interrupt.

Her grudges, too, were legendary, and none more so than the one which grew out of her rivalry with Raisa Gorbachev. Raisa was herself an exception to every rule, the first non-dowdy, non-self effacing Soviet leader's wife, with a PR sense as keen as Nancy's own. Raisa trumped Nancy by appearing, unscheduled, at the Reykjavik nuclear arms summit of 1986 and Ms Reagan never forgave her for that act of one-up-womanship.

The following year when Mikhail Gorbachev came to Washington (with Raisa) the First Ladies' show was an attraction to rival the epochal arms cutting treaty signed by their spouses.

Also, Don Regan, the White House chief of staff during Mr Reagan's far less effective second term, recounts how Nancy badgered him to get rid of William Casey, the then CIA director, even as he lay on his deathbed.

The episode might be attributed to Mrs Reagan's all-eclipsing obsession, to protect her husband and his reputation - indeed she was even said to have initiated the transformation of Reagan the warmonger, of "Evil Empire" fame, into Reagan the peacemaker, who would leave office dreaming of a world without nuclear weapons.

Such was her concern for the Reagan historical legacy. And at that particular moment in late 1986, at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, his reputation and legacy needed all the help they could get.

"You're more interested in protecting Bill Casey than protecting Ronnie," she scolded Regan, even as he pointed out that it would be inhuman to sack a man at Christmas, while Casey's family was waiting anxiously at his bedside.

Nancy would have none of it: "He's dragging Ronnie down, nobody believes what Casey says." When Mr Reagan's chief of staff persisted, she hung up.

Then, of course, there was Nancy's famous reliance on astrology to shape Mr Reagan's schedule. In January 1987 she all but shut down his public appearances after being advised by her astrologer that the stars were improperly aligned.

Almost two years before, during the President's visit to Germany in May 1985, studded with ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, there were a series of last minute changes of schedule.

Nothing was spared the attentions of Nancy's "Friend in San Francisco." In his 1988 memoir For the Record - written mainly to settle scores with the First Lady - Don Regan claims to have kept a colour coded calendar on his desk, in which astrologically "good days" were highlighted in green ink, "bad" ones in red, and "iffy" days in yellow.

As Ronald Reagan's powers began to wane, ever greater powers were attributed to Nancy by the Washington chatterati. Since Eleanor Roosevelt, no first lady - with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton - has wielded as much influence. Whether the perception was correct scarcely mattered. In the White House, as in every other human institution, power lies in the perception of power.

But in retirement everything changed. During the dark final decade of her husband's life, the very qualities for which he was criticised - her utter devotion to Mr Reagan and her jealous protection of him - made her so greatly admired.

Rosy nostalgia placed the Reagan relationship, even at the White House where it was most irksome to outsiders, an entirely new light. "Writing Their Own Script, They Lived Happily Ever After," was the headline decorating one effusive article on the Reagan marriage at the weekend.

In the hundreds of almost schoolboyish love letters that Ronald wrote to her through their 52 years of married life, he would sometimes call her "Mommy Poo" - once even "My peewee powerhouse."

The Reagans did not invent the habit of First Family handholding and the adoring Presidential spouse gazing raptly at her man, but they brought it to a new refinement and ubiquity, and there was no doubting its sincerity. The marriage was extraordinary close - so close that for long periods even the couple's own children felt they were outsiders as well.

Nancy seems to have tended him with even greater devotion as Alzheimer's tightened its grip. Back on the West Coast, she might have been expected to pick up her social life with old friends. She would have been forgiven had she placed the husband who no longer even recognised her into specialised care.

Instead, she spent her evenings watching television or talking on the phone.

For the last few years, friends have said, she simply could not communicate with him. And only very occasionally would she talk about it.

In early May, the guard dropped as she told a dinner organised by a diabetes research foundation that "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him." In a CBS interview two years ago, she expanded a little on her sadness. "The golden years are when you sit back, hopefully, and exchange memories - and that's the worst party of this disease. There's nobody to exchange memories with, and we had a lot of memories."

Now, at the age of 93, her husband has gone - and after what went before, Nancy Reagan probably feels a certain relief that that the inevitable has now happened. Yesterday, she appeared in public for the first time after his death.

She was frail, her face tight drawn, as her children helped her to her place in the funeral procession that took her husband's coffin from the Los Angeles morgue to lie in public view at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.

But she was as immaculate as in her prime, her hair blonde and perfectly coiffured. If appearances are any guide, Nancy Reagan is not a woman who has thrown in the towel on life.

Indeed, friends say she now intends to use her high profile to devote herself to Alzheimer's causes and the stem cell research which many scientists believe offers chances of a cure to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

Unfortunately the country's current Republican president who, in many respects, models himself on Nancy's husband, is not greatly inclined to help in her new cause. A fierce opponent of abortion, George Bush in August 2001 decided to place strict limits on cell stem research, which involves the use of human embryos. Ms Reagan was said have been "disappointed" by the decision.

But she has found the perfect cause, that will allow her to continue enhancing Ronald Reagan's legacy, and bring hope to all those who suffer from the disease which ruined his own golden years and took away the chance to reminisce about his life.

"When Nancy gets her body and heart together, she's going to work feverishly for stem cell research and the Reagan Library," Casey Ribicoff, an old friend told The New York Times. And if the past is any guide, the former First Lady will be a formidable lobbyist - and one her fellow citizens will appreciate as they never did during those halycon years at the White House.