The Woman Who Kept Him Going

Nancy Reagan's determination to keep her husband well fed, well rested, and undistracted by any hint of family problems (of which there are plenty) has profoundly indebted him to her. To her credit, Nancy has never pretended fully to understand Ronald Reagan's aloof yet ardent nature. She claims only to love him back, and know him (insofar as he can be known) better than anyone else. This knowledge extends to his principal weakness, a tendency to trust everybody, which she compensates for by trusting nobody at all. There is a photograph of the Reagans being received by Pope Paul VI, in which it is clear that His Holiness better not mess with Ronnie.

In a town famous for its coldness--where one can be in mid-sentence at a cocktail party, only to find one's interlocutor striding away sans any apology at first sight of somebody more famous--Nancy will soon be feared by many as an operator par excellence. Although her famous father Dr. Loyal Davis ("I have his hands... surgeon's hands") is actually only her stepfather, she seems to have inherited his neurologist's conviction that all human behavior can be controlled, if necessary by cutting.

As yet, she has few people to protect Reagan from. The new administration is being formed with spectacular speed and efficiency, and loyalty to last year's campaign promises is a condition of appointment. Liberals in Congress and the national press are in no hurry to challenge so popular a President, while Washington hostesses delight at the message winked by Nancy's beaded, white, one-shoulder Galanos gown: it is party time again on the Potomac. Not for her the dimmed lights and reluctant white wine of the Carter era, Rosalynn's dour discussions of mental health and human rights. Her compatibles are the fashionable wives of very rich men and amusing walkers like Truman Capote and Jerry Zipkin, who keep her supplied with scuttlebutt from both coasts. She loves to lunch out, "gives good phone," and never tries to finish her husband's jokes. In a word, the Reagans look like fun.

And what of their children? They are a dissimilar group, divided between two mothers, united only by their starved love for Ronald Reagan. The President simultaneously dazzles and intimidates them with his celebrity, now amplified beyond imagining by the busyness of power. He was always a remote father (delicious though his company was, when available), and was made shy by their love when they tried to express it. What chance of requital now, as Dad becomes the father of all the people?

Ron Reagan, 22, is a decent and well-balanced youth, with all of his father's charm and none of his mystery. Although the beautifully proportioned body is recognizable to anyone who ever swam at Lowell Park in the 1920s, the long Botticellian face is sui generis. Patti Davis, 28, is an authentic product of the Age of Aquarius, sexually and pharmaceutically adventurous, limber from yoga, pro-abortion and anti-nuke, vegetarian, guitar-thumping, street-smart. Like all of the Reagan children, she is perpetually short of money.

Michael Reagan is the most starved child of all, not even flesh of Reagan's flesh, a 35-year-old cauldron of secret shame (he was repeatedly molested by a camp counselor in childhood) and occasional uncontrollable anger, which he vents in smashed glass and telephone tirades. He used to be proud of his father's nickname for him, schmuck, until he looked it up in a Yiddish dictionary.

Maureen, at 40, is the eldest and largest of the President's children, her brilliant smile and button nose reminding the world that there once was another Mrs. Reagan. Had she Jane Wyman's graceful body, she might have made a career in show business, since she sings and acts well, memorizes like a VCR and luxuriates in the spotlight.

From "DUTCH: A MEMOIR OF RONALD REAGAN." © 1999 by Edmund Morris. To be published by Random House, Inc.

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