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The 'just say no' first lady

Nancy Reagan on her years in the White House, the CBS movie, and her fight to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.
/ Source: TODAY

As an actress in the 1950's, Nancy Reagan never dreamed that one day, her husband would be president and that she would represent the nation as first lady.

Nancy Davis was born Anne Frances Robbins in New York City on July 6, 1921.

The decade was considered roaring, but her early years were tough. When she was only a few months old, her father left.  Her mother Edith, an actress with a touring theater company sent her two-year-old daughter to live with an aunt and uncle in Bethesda, Maryland.  

Shortly before Nancy’s eighth birthday, Edith married Loyal Davis, a neurosurgeon who lived in Chicago.  For all practical purposes he would become Nancy’s father.

Following in her mother's footsteps, Nancy Davis went to Hollywood and signed a studio contract with MGM studios.

Just one year later, she met the man who would soon become her husband, and later the 40th president of the United States, a fellow actor named Ronald Reagan.

His career began in earnest as governor of California, and the education of Nancy Reagan as first lady began.  Ever since, she has been his number one supporter.   

Katie Couric: “What in general would you say is the role of first lady?”

Nancy Reagan: “Well, that's a role that each first lady has to define for herself.  There is no job description for the first lady and she's only there because her husband got elected president.” (Laughs)

Couric: “As Americans watch the first lady figure out her role, sort of on-the-job training, it can be tough, can't it?”

Reagan: “Oh yes, it can. And I have great empathy for them. It’s a very small little sisterhood, you know.” (Laughs)

As first lady, Mrs. Reagan traveled to 65 cities in 33 states, raising awareness about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. It was the 1980's and the phrase heard everywhere was, "just say no."

Reagan: “I was beginning to hear from friends of mine about their problems with drugs and their children. And so, I became very aware of it.  And in the White House, I could do something, hopefully, about it.” 

The campaign was well advertised and highly publicized, but got its name in a very simple way.

Reagan: “I was in California and I was talking to, I think, fifth graders, and one little girl raised her hand and said, ‘Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’  And I said, ‘well, you just say no.’ And there it was born.  I think people thought that we had an advertising agency over who dreamed that up -- not true.”

Couric: “Did you get letters from people saying, ‘Mrs. Reagan, you had a huge impact on my life?"

Reagan: “Oh, yes, I still get letters.”

Couric: “You do? What do some of them say?”

Reagan: “‘Thank you for what you did.  You turned my life around.’  It’s really wonderful.”

Unfortunately, some critics were saying "no" to Nancy Reagan.  She was taken to task for wearing designer gowns and redecorating the white house during a recession. But her regular consultations with an astrologer raised the most eyebrows.

Despite being voted most admired woman in America three times during the ‘80s, Mrs. Reagan says living under a microscope was one of her biggest challenges.

Reagan: “I thought, I mean, I’d been in pictures.  I’d been first lady of California for eight years and I thought well surely, you know, I’ve seen it. The, ‘it can't get any worse than this, but it did and it does. I mean, you're really, really in a fishbowl.”

Couric: “Must have been so painful.”

Reagan: “It certainly was, I think, I don't know.  I think they couldn't get at Ronnie.  So, they picked me, I think.”

Couric: “And how did you get through it and how did he help you get through it?”

Reagan: “By just being there, and understanding.  But well, you get through it because you have to get through it.  There’s no choice.”

Couric: “For awhile there, you could not do anything right.”

Reagan: “Nothing.”

Couric: “With you.”

Reagan: “Nothing. There was, I mean, they say things like, that I prevented sumo wrestlers in a rose garden. I didn't know anything about sumo wrestlers.”

Couric: “You're not a big sumo wrestling fan?”

Reagan: (Laughs) “No. Well, I…”

Couric: “I'm shocked.”

Reagan: “I know.  Well, I didn't want to tell you that Katie, but…”

Couric: “I would imagine one of the most challenging times of course, was after your husband's assassination attempt.”

Reagan: “Oh, yes.”

Couric: “Oh my gosh.”

Reagan: “Oh, yes, that was the worst, the worst.  Because I almost lost him then and people didn't know that. You know, they just talked about the things that he said, ‘honey, I forgot to duck,’ and, ‘I hope you guys are all republicans.’”

Couric: “To the medical team?”

Reagan: “As they were getting ready to operate on him.”  (Laughs)

When it comes to Ronald Reagan, it seems his legacy has been the subject of countless rewrites.  Some have been flattering like the release of his speeches and personal letter to Nancy have enhanced his image while others though have been sharply critical -- most recently a CBS movie about the Reagan’s that depicted the president as out of touch and Mrs. Reagan as difficult and domineering.

Reagan: “It was amazing how people wrote in objected.  But, I never saw it. I didn't want to see it.  As I understand it, I screamed all during it. I don't really yell at people.”

Couric: “That must have been difficult.”

Reagan: “It was mean, really.  You had to ask yourself why?  Why would they do this, at this particular time?  Why?  I still don't know.”

At this particular time the movie seemed especially cruel to Mrs. Reagan who for the past decade has devoted herself to caring for her ailing husband. 

Couric: “Where do you find your strength every day?”

Reagan: “I don't know, Katie. You just do what you have to do. Don’t you?” 

Couric: “I know you have worked hard to advance the cause of Alzheimer’s and to help other families.  And to push science forward as well.  Do you think there is hope, Mrs. Reagan?”

Reagan: “Yes, I do. They've made great strides, really and they're so close.”

In addition, Nancy Reagan has gently, but forcefully tried to push forward federal funding of stem cell research. 

Reagan: “You’d be saving so many lives.  I mean, and not just Alzheimer’s, but Parkinson’s (and) diabetes. I mean a whole raft of diseases.” 

Couric: “Some people say that that position has alienated some of the very supporters of your husband's -- conservatives who feel very strongly that stem cell research is not appropriate.”

Reagan: “Now. But, you know, I just don't think they understand that it's not taking a life.  It’s trying to save countless lives.”

The research may be too late for President Reagan.  Now Mrs. Reagan is comforted by happy memories. 

Couric: “When you look back on your years at the White House, what gave you the most joy?” 

Reagan: “Oh, yes. Meeting the people, the heads of state, I mean, Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev, all of that, that's pretty exciting.  And to be part of history and see history being made.”

Couric: “What do you think was the most important piece of advice you got before setting foot into the White House?

Reagan: “From my parents and they told me, don't worry about anything.  Just take each day as it comes and enjoy it.  And know that you're there in the midst of things and history. And I tried to do that.”