Stark contrasts at two White House lunches

Stark contrasts at two White House lunches

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Although I never her, I was the beneficiary of Nancy Reagan’s good taste. I was invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan’s press office, my second visit after one during President Jimmy Carter’s term. The contrast between the two visits could not be more stark.

The former first lady died this week at the age of 94, outliving her husband by nine years. In reality she had started to lose him more than 10 years earlier in what she termed “her long goodbye,” as his suffering from Alzheimer’s disease carried him into his own world. Theirs was a long marriage in which they seemed devoted to each other, and she passionately protected him and his image as he moved from president of the Screen Actors Guild to governor of California to president of the United States. She said that her “greatest ambition” was to have a “successful, happy marriage.”

She may well have yearned for that as a result of her early childhood experiences. She was born Anne Frances Robbins in 1921, the daughter of Edith Luckett and Kenneth Robbins. Her mother was an actress and her father a car dealer who abandoned them shortly after she was born. When she was 2, her mother resumed her acting career. Then, when Nancy was almost 8 years old, her mother married a Chicago neurosurgeon, Loyal Davis, and overnight her circumstances reversed. Her life was now one of stability and privilege, and she went on eventually to graduate from an elite high school and then Smith College as Nancy Davis in 1943.

She might well have endorsed Sophie Tucker’s famous maxim: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. … Rich is better.”

When Reagan was elected governor and the Reagans were expected to live in the governor’s mansion, which was at that time a run-down Victorian house on a busy, one-way street in Sacramento, Calif., she convinced her husband to lease at their own expense a 12-room Tudor house in a better neighborhood. Then, when Reagan was elected president, she decided to redo the private living quarters of the White House. She raised $822,000 from private contributors to do that, but she was severely criticized by the press.

Although she had made a number of worthwhile efforts over the years, including welcoming home former prisoners of war from Vietnam at a time when those who fought in the war were sometimes spat upon, and involving herself in a Foster Grandparents Program for mentally disabled children — according to an obit in The New York Times — she was generally regarded in the press as stylish but extravagant and aloof. She was petite, slender, exercised daily and wore expensive, designer clothing at a time when the country was still hobbled with the remains of the 1970s crushing recession. Her first public relations interest was not her own image but that of her husband.

So when she raised more than $200,000 from another contributor to buy a 220-place setting of new presidential china, the first since President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, she was most unpopular as a result. That seemed to reinforce her unflattering image.

Nancy Reagan as first lady traveled widely to speak out against drug and alcohol abuse, especially among young people, and she is the one who coined the phrase, “Just say no.” She also publicly urged women to get mammograms every year after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time when that disease was still whispered. And, as you might expect, she was a powerful advocate for new research into Alzheimer’s.

This is how she affected me. When our press group visited with President Carter, we were given lunch in a cardboard box that we held on our laps as we sat in a circle in the Oval Office. It consisted of two halves of different sandwiches, an apple, a bag of chips and a hardboiled egg. I clearly recall watching the president shaking salt on his egg and alternately taking bites. Although I was thrilled to be there and I appreciated the effort to project an image of austerity, I thought it seemed more fitting for a picnic on the lawn than one in the nerve center of the most powerful country in the world.

At President Reagan’s lunch, we ate in the East Wing at cloth-covered tables and were served white wine with our veal scaloppine on beautiful dishes. Now I am not particularly stylish or slender and certainly not a spendthrift, but I wanted to tell Mrs. Reagan, “Right on!”