Co-Starring At the White House

Nancy Reagan's clout and causes bring new respect

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Seldom is her collaboration as bald-faced as it was at an impromptu press conference last August in California: when the President hesitated after a question about arms control, she whispered an all-purpose answer ("We're doing everything we can") within earshot of reporters, which the President then repeated as his own. (Both Reagans claim that she was just talking to herself, not intending to cue him at all.) In her serious intramural forays at the White House, she is fairly subtle, talking up ideas from Baker and Deaver to her husband, as well as transmitting intelligence about the President back to the West Wing. For example, she explains, "I pick up on something that he's unhappy with . . . He may make some comments that I think would be helpful for Mike (Deaver) to know, and might facilitate a situation, and I might call Mike and tell him." She calls Baker less often. Spencer, who comes to Washington regularly, is her third confidant; a week before Christmas they had a serious luncheon talk.

Nancy Reagan's nudges have, if anything, served to move the President from the far right toward the political center. Within the Administration, she has consistently allied herself with the moderates against the conservative ideologues. It is not that she is a crypto-liberal. Rather, like Deaver and Baker, she has instincts attuned more to public relations than to undiluted principle. More than anything else, she wants the public to continue adoring her husband. Maintaining consensus has inevitably meant a tempering of the original Reaganite agenda: the New Right's fractious social issues have been down-played at the White House, and nuclear-arms control is, belatedly, being pursued. "She's as good an instinctive politician as her husband," says Spencer, who has known them both since 1965. "She's more tactical, he's more strategic."

In private she may be astute Nancy Reagan, refining tactics and wheedling the President's men, but outside she is obliged always to play the First Lady, a serene and smiling public presence. The role may be a grand one, but it can get to be a grind. "Well, it is a job," she says, "which I didn't realize."

She has two dozen phone conversations a day, usually at least one each with Deaver and Press Secretary Sheila Tate. She must oversee White House Chef Henry Haller and his helpers, as well as her personal staff of 24. Among those two dozen are six top aides, who generally meet with her every week as a group: Chief of Staff James Rosebush, Tate, Social Secretary Gahl Hodges, Personal Assistant Elaine Crispen, Projects Director Ann Wrobleski and Marty Coyne, director of her advance team.

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