(Bloomberg) — Nancy Reagan, the former actress and first lady who nurtured the political career of husband Ronald Reagan, and was remembered for her unstinting devotion to the president as well as efforts to battle drug abuse and Alzheimer’s disease, has died. She was 94.
She died Sunday morning at her home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library said in a statement. The cause was congestive heart failure.
The Reagans were inseparable during their 52 years of marriage, and their deep mutual affection carried over into public life. Nancy Reagan encouraged a close personal relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa during tense arms negotiations in the 1980s. She sometimes organized Reagan’s schedule based on astrological readings, and caused a stir over White House renovations and pricey purchases.
“Nancy Reagan once wrote that nothing could prepare you for living in the White House,” President Barack Obama said Sunday in a statement. “She was right, of course. But we had a head start, because we were fortunate to benefit from her proud example, and her warm and generous advice.”
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James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s first chief of staff and second-term Treasury secretary, said via e-mail that she was “one half of the team that restored our nation’s pride and confidence in itself, and reinvigorated America’s leadership role in the world.”
The 2016 Republican field praised Nancy Reagan’s dedication to her husband and country. “Theirs was one of our nation’s great love stories and a model of shared devotion to our country,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said in a statement. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz lauded her “deep passion for this nation,” while front-runner Donald Trump called her “an amazing woman.”
For decades, many Republican candidates for public office have linked themselves in one way or another to the Reagan legacy. “With the passing of Nancy Reagan, we say a final goodbye to the days of Ronald Reagan,” Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said in a statement on his Facebook page. “With charm, grace, and a passion for America, this couple reminded us of the greatness and the endurance of the American experiment.”
Her influence on the presidency was the focus of media attention and her eye for style reminiscent of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. She campaigned against illicit drug use while Reagan was in office, and became an advocate of stem-cell research in later years as her husband battled Alzheimer’s, which took his life in 2004.
Some in the press chided her for the adoring gaze she fixed on her husband when listening to his speeches, mocking “The Stare” as an on-stage act fitting for a couple who first met when they were actors. Yet the former first lady proved the depth of her devotion as she defended her husband’s image and privacy during his long illness.
Ronald Reagan served two terms as California’s governor and two as the 40th U.S. president, winning re-election in 1984 with majorities in 49 of 50 states and the most electoral votes ever tallied.
In 1994, he wrote in a letter to the American people that he had Alzheimer’s disease, saying that he hoped his disclosure “might promote greater awareness of this condition.” The former first lady devoted the next decade to caring for him as he withdrew from public life, a period she referred to as “the long goodbye.”
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Reagan’s revelation came “at a time when Alzheimer’s disease was truly in the shadows and together they began to change the conversation about Alzheimer’s disease for millions,” Harry Johns, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association, said in a statement. “The public disclosure of their Alzheimer’s experience created an enormous and much needed upsurge of interest in the disease from the general public and government officials.”
Nancy Reagan surprised social conservatives in 2001 when she wrote to Republican President George W. Bush urging support for embryonic stem-cell research. She didn’t sway Bush, who, citing “moral values,” blocked proposals to fund research on stem cells harvested from unused human embryos. Obama reversed the ban on federally funded stem-cell research in 2009, drawing Reagan’s praise.
“Science has presented us with a hope,” Nancy Reagan said in a May 2004 speech at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation event in Beverly Hills, Calif., less than a month before her husband’s death from the brain-destroying disease.
She hadn’t been as vocal on policy before, with the exception of her effort to reduce drug abuse among America’s youth with the “Just Say No” advertising campaign of the 1980s. In that campaign, she appeared in public service announcements, including a series that warned “the thrill can kill.”
Many Americans viewed Reagan as a spendthrift and clotheshorse in her early years as first lady. She refurbished the second floor of the White House, purchasing more than $200,000 worth of new china with private donations, at a time the nation was in a recession.
Her public image also was shaped by her preference for designer clothing, provided free of charge by their makers. A turning point came at Washington’s annual Gridiron Dinner in 1982, when Reagan, at the suggestion of her press secretary, Sheila Tate, mocked her own shortcomings in a surprise appearance on stage. In a skit, she dressed like a cleaning lady and sang reworked lyrics, “Second-Hand Clothes,” to the tune of “Second-Hand Rose.”
Critics later accused the former first lady of relying on horoscopes and astrologers to determine President Reagan’s scheduling. In her 1989 memoir, “My Turn,” she attributed the consultations to a fear for her husband’s safety after he survived the 1981 assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr., who wounded and almost killed Reagan with a gunshot.