Monday, March 07, 2016

Nancy Reagan (1921-2016)

Growing up, I frequently was fascinated by Nancy Reagan.  I would read through my books of the presidents and first ladies, and while I would focus on the men who sat in the Oval Office, equally intriguing were the women, and in particular Reagan, who was that rare crossbreed of someone who intersected my two favorite passions: movies and politics.  Yes, for those of you who came late to the party, like her husband, before she was a first lady decked in red Mrs. Reagan was a contract player for MGM, appearing alongside the likes of Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ray Milland, eventually culminating in her most famous role in Hellcats of the Navy where she starred opposite her husband for the only time (a film I hope to view for the first time later this week and which we'll review on the blog in honor of Mrs. Reagan's passing).

Of course, it was as First Lady of the United States that Reagan made her greatest cultural impact, and with her movie star beauty ushered in an age of glamour after several administrations that had lacked in that department, favoring designers like Oscar de la Renta and Adolfo and redecorating the White House.  This focus on style (which was undeniable, whatever you say about the woman-she was a fashion icon), ran counter to some of the beliefs that she held during her administration which receive stinging retribution to this day from liberals.  Mrs. Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign became a major conversation point in the 1980's, to the point that she even made appearances on Dynasty and Diff'rent Strokes to champion the cause, but the drug policies of the Reagan administration did little to deter the economic and societal ills that were the root cause of the spike in drug use during the 1980's, and her work to create tougher penalties for drug users has largely gone out of vogue in the years since.  Additionally, her antipathy toward those suffering from HIV, even when faced with the death of her close friend Rock Hudson from the disease, is appalling in hindsight, and thousands of gay men in America died and we lost untold years of research by the Reagan administration's silence on the epidemic.  Every time President Reagan is held as a near saint of the conservative movement, I feel personally insulted for all of my fellow gay brothers who died while his government did nothing.

That being said, her influence was not all hollow victories, and while she remained silent on behalf of AIDS victims for too long, she later learned her lessons in terms of medical advocacy.  Her mammogram and later mastectomy caused thousands of women to start getting breast cancer screenings.  Perhaps her greatest contribution to society came very late in her life in terms of stem-cell research.  She pushed hard for President George W. Bush to incorporate research into his platform in hopes of helping Alzheimer's patients, and while he didn't, she gave political cover to other Republicans and moderate Democrats who may have been reluctant to support the then-controversial topic, which was eventually approved by President Obama to Reagan's delight.  Her shadow as a First Lady was long and complicated, and while never perfect, she cut a distinctive imprint on American society and politics, and few others can boast the same.

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