Tom Brokaw on the Passing of Nancy Reagan: ‘A Very Skilled and Powerful First Lady Who Didn’t Let the Seams Show’

Host Tom Brokaw speaks during the Characters Unite National Town Hall at the NEWSEUM on December 2, 2009 in Washington, DC
Kris Connor/Getty Images

Legendary NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw says former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at the age of 94, “will be remembered as a very skilled and powerful First Lady who didn’t let the seams show.”

“She had a very subtle touch behind the scenes,” Brokaw told host Stephen K. Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, on Monday morning’s edition of Breitbart News Daily, heard daily on Sirius-XM’s Patriot Channel 125.

“I am quite close to a number of people who worked in that White House and they always said ‘We knew where the power was, not just with the President, but with Nancy as well.’ And she didn’t abuse the power. She was very skilled in how she used it,” Brokaw added.

Brokaw also told Bannon that Nancy Reagan’s influence on her husband may have contributed to his administration’s foreign policy successes:

It was important for the staff to know not just where she stood on issues, but on personnel as well. I do think that, as a modern First Lady, she had a huge impact on the politics of the White House. I know for a fact that she dialed “Ronnie,” as she called him, dialed him down on his rhetoric about the Soviet Union because she could see the possibilities of getting something done with Mikhail Gorbachev at that time. And also understood the historic importance of that, if he were the President who could start to unwind the nuclear confrontation.

Bannon asked Brokaw to expand on how Nancy Reagan “was really a partner to him [President Reagan], not in so much policy, but really as the person that he kind of leaned on in very difficult situations.”

“Well it was, in the truest sense of the word, a deeply emotional relationship, but also very pragmatic. I was just saying on the air a few moments ago that I thought their thespian training, their Hollywood background, helped them in politics, because they were conscious of the fact the country wanted something grand in the Presidency,” Brokaw said. He also noted that:

They were always prepared to help deliver that, not just on a substantive point of view, but also in a kind of metaphorical way. So when they went out in public, they had a patina, more than a patina, of glamour about them, and she kept that up after we lost the President. At the [Reagan] Library, for example, she would be always introduced as the former First Lady of the United States. They had ruffles and flourishes played. The whole setting at the library, I think, is a real tribute to their personal tastes, but also to the place of the Presidency in our lives, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or a Tea Party member or whatever. You go in there and you have a sense of the majesty of the office, if you will, and I mean that in a pragmatic sense, not in the royal sense.

“They were very, very much aware of the importance of symbolism. I think it was helped shaped a little bit by their years, not just in Hollywood, but eight years as Governor of California,” Brokaw added.

Bannon also posited that without Nancy Reagan as First Lady, “there for the comfort, aid and really protection of him, it might have been a very different Presidency, would it not?”

Brokaw agreed:

I think that’s true. She was, she didn’t let this on to him, but she was terrified whenever he went out, because she saw just how vulnerable he was, even with all that protection. He was such an important part of her life from a personal point of view. She was very anxious about it. But they got through it. She didn’t show that anxiety to the public, and she was greatly relieved when he was able to leave office on his own two feet, as it were. And then, of course, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and wrote that very, very touching letter to the American people, hand written, and then she went on to live with him in that condition. He had to have her at his side, at night, for example, or he would get agitated, and she was there, and never complained.

I had quite a strong personal relationship with her by then, and I would not bring that up, and she would not… there was never a hint of a complaint from her about the life she had been reduced to. A lot of her friends were gone by then, so she didn’t have a very active social life. She had a harder time getting around. She had friends in New York. She would come here from time to time, but then she lost most of them. She was a very brave woman through it all.

Bannon also asked if “this old-fashioned marriage [between Nancy and Ronald Reagan], even though he was divorced, is it something that the first couple can have, does the new First Lady have to be too policy oriented or do you think they could actually have this throw-back marriage?”

“I do think that marriage was a reflection of their times,” Brokaw responded, adding:

And when he got divorced [from first wife Jane Wyman], it was very hard for him to accept. He kept thinking for awhile that they would get back together again. But Ms. Wyman, whom I didn’t know, but I’ve heard from others who talked to her, just, he was consumed with politics 24-7. He was the head of the Screen Actors Guild for example. He was very liberal, he was very involved in politics, and then he made the transition to becoming the kind of typical conservative of his time. Divorce in those days was almost a lower s “scandale.” People didn’t get divorced. They covered it up. I think he was very conscious of that. He came out of a strong Protestant background in the Midwest. He was part of that culture. His mother was a huge influence on him.

Brokaw agreed with Bannon’s assertion that Reagan “was kind of the All-American boy.”

“He was, and he carried that out,” Brokaw noted:

What people forget is that he did grow up under very difficult circumstances. He went to Eureka College [in Illinois], played football, and almost instantly became a big radio star in the Midwest. He worked for WHO, the big radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, and he recreated the Chicago Cubs baseball games. He got a great interest in horseback riding. So he was a glamorous figure by those standards.

And then he went to the West Coast to cover the Cubs in spring training, and somebody said to him, ‘You ought to take a crack at Hollywood.’ And he became a contract player for Universal Pictures. This was all before he was 30. So he had a rocket ride to some considerable success at that time. That would have been in those moments that would have been the American dream fulfilled.

You can hear the full interview here:


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