Nancy Reagan and Her Legacy of Influence

Nancy Reagan and Her Legacy of Influence


Hillary Clinton said a few complimentary words meant to honor Former First Lady while attending Nancy Reagan’s funeral on March 12, 2016. She was laid to rest beside her husband Ronald Reagan, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Many endeavors have been rightly attributed to her that have resonated with the American public and left an impact that is still being felt to this day.

The Reagan Administration was in power from ’81-’89, and for much of her time as the First Lady, Nancy Reagan was notably tireless in both her devotion to her husband and her various causes. In 1982, she coined the term, “Just Say No.” It was a phrase that walked in step with Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), an anti-drug campaign that would sweep schools and after-school programs across the country in the mid to late ’80s. PBS reported that in 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which cost $1.7 billion for battling drugs. $97 million would be set aside for building new prisons. $200 million was meant for drug education, and $241 million was to spend on treatment. Zero Tolerance policies that were implemented and the rate of incarceration for non-violent drug offenses zooms from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 by 1997.

In 1994, five years after the Reagan presidency came to an end, Former First Lady Reagan’s husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Shortly after that, she became a staunch supporter of research and lobbyist for research on the affliction and founded the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, an Alzheimer’s Association affiliate. She even went toe to toe with fellow conservatives in the George W. Bush years. Former President Bush wanted to restrict stem cell research in 2002, which Reagan strongly opposed and lobbied against. Hans Keirstead, the ex-president of privately owned California Stem Cell, met with the Former First Lady. He recounted to NPR that his impression of her was that of indomitable force.

She founded the research foundation within a year of his diagnosis, amassed millions of dollars and fought the against the tide of ignorance that the public, very likely those in her political party, espoused on the topic of stem cell research. Keirstead said, “She used the power of her position very unapologetically.” She was responsible for bringing a lot of awareness to the Alzheimer’s research, and the tools that accompany it. Keirstead continued, “There was a lot of ignorance, as to where the stem cells came from, how they were used… She brought clarity to it, by using her position, influencing politicians, as well as federal government funding agencies.” Federal Government Funding agencies, like the National Institute of Health, began funding Alzheimer’s research.

NPR reported that there were over 1000 people in attendance for the former First Lady’s internment. The genial tone at the funeral was taken with recounting the fount of love and strength of Reagan. Her fierce love and compassion for her husband that spurred her into action for causes throughout her lifetime were recognized by her peers. Fellow former and current First Ladies Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama were seated in the front row, as well as former first Lady Clinton, who is also running for president. On March 11, 2016, on MSNBC, Clinton mistakenly praised Reagan for something she had no part in, activism in HIV/AIDs research.

Clinton credited Reagan to participating in low-key activism at a time when “no one else wanted to talk about it.” Clinton later retracted her statement due to the enormous backlash that roared from the LGBT community. President Reagan was famously silent on the topic of the AIDS epidemic, despite the fact that it had swept across the country throughout Reagan’s two terms in office. He did not even say the word AIDS until 1985 when it had killed over 5000 men in the United States. The only attribution that could be possibly linked to the Reagan Administration could be the casual dismissals. As well as, the outright laughter of Reagan’s Press Secretary Larry Speakes in October 1982, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declared AIDS an epidemic, as over one-third of 600 cases in the United States had resulted in the deaths of gay men. Speakes continued to make light of the matter for the next three years. The death toll would continue to rise.

By 1985, President Reagan would indeed utter the name of the epidemic that had killed over 5000 people in the United States. AIDS would take the life of the Reagan’s celebrity friend, Rock Hudson, by the end of the same year. Buzzfeed discovered that the silence that said so much did not stop with the political red tape of the White House, it became increasingly personal. Rock Hudson, Hollywood star and famed celebrity reached out to his friend, the First Lady, in the weeks before he would succumb to AIDS. He was in France, frail and dying. A telegram had been sent to the White House on his behalf, telling everything, that Hudson was suffering from AIDS, and save for one caveat, he could be moved from one hospital to another facility in France that would provide treatment. The catch was that the new doctor and hospital could only serve French citizens.

The telegram stated that the approval of a member of the White House would possibly be beneficial in saving Hudson’s life. A receipt of the telegram log is also housed in the Reagan Library Archives. Press Secretary and Aide to Reagan at the time, Mark Weinberg, asked what to do about the matter, and she suggested referring the writer to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. She told Weinberg that she would not want to appear as though she were exhibiting favoritism by doing favors for friends. “The Reagans were all about treating everyone the same, and not making an exception whether the friends were celebrities or not,” Weinberg recalled.

However, Weinberg said that a call was made apologizing to the initial hospital that the White House would not be able to do anything. PresidentReagan and his wife made a call to Hudson and wished him well at his bedside. By July 28, 1985, Hudson paid thousands of dollars to charter a jet to return home. The illness he had fought to hide for a year had been exposed to the press, and news publications were ruminating about the major celebrity who was suffering from the “gay plague.” He was taken to UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, and died on Oct. 2, 1985.

The White House and Reagan Administration held firm in its decision not to show favoritism and treated a friend, the same as any other American citizen with HIV/AIDS at the time. Nancy Reagan would later call Alzheimer’s “the worst disease you can never have.” according to NPR. “You lose contact, and you don’t even have the wonderful memories you used to have.” she said. Reagan’s fortitude in the face of her husband’s illness was an amazing feat; she crusaded on the behalf of her beloved Ronnie. However, by 1997, the U.S. death toll of AIDS was 21,399 people, worldwide it was 6,400,000 people. If Clinton had been correct in her praise on Friday, and Mrs. Reagan had pushed for as much research, federal money and used her influence as unapologetically for another group of people that were suffering. If she had shoved back against the tide of ignorance for another disease that was claiming people within and outside of her circle of Hollywood friends and White House acquaintances, if that indomitable force had been applied to research for another disease that could have also been coined, “The worst disease you can never have.” If those things had happened, Clinton might have been correct in her praise.

By Juanita Lewis
Edited by Cathy Milne


NPR: Stem Cell Pioneer: Nancy Reagan Brought Alzheimer’s ‘Into The Public Sphere.’
BuzzFeed: Nancy Reagan Turned Down Rock Hudson’s Plea For Help Nine Weeks Before He Died
Reagan Foundation: Her Causes
The New York Times: Hillary Clinton Lauds Reagans on AIDS. A Backlash Erupts
Vanity Fair: The Reagan Administration’s Unearthed Response to the AIDS Crisis Is Chilling
Factlv: A Brief Timeline of AIDS
PBS Frontline: Thirty Years of America’s Drug War

Top Image Courtesy of Alberto Botella’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of Wikimedia –  Creative Commons License