Tennesseans who worked in the Reagan White House remember first lady Nancy Reagan as gracious to her staff, but fiercely devoted to protecting her husband's image.
"It's not like she was not a caring person," said Tom Griscom, former Times Free Press executive editor and publisher, who was President Ronald Reagan's White House communications director from 1987-1988. "But at the end of the day, there was no doubt, the person she cared the most about was her husband."
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who did advance work for Nancy Reagan for four years, agreed.
"She expected us to be 110 percent loyal to her husband," he said in a telephone interview Monday. "Everything she did — which meant everything we did — was an extension of him. We were there to make him look good, so the pressure was on us to handle ourselves while we were there to not do something that would embarrass the president or embarrass her."
Griscom said there was no doubt she was actively involved in her husband's decision-making. In February 1987, for example, President Reagan had decided to replace his chief of staff, Donald Regan, with former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, for whom Griscom worked as chief of staff. The president decided on a Friday that Regan, who the first lady disliked, should submit his resignation the following Monday.
But Nancy Reagan, Griscom believes, decided to leak the story to the press in advance.
"It was pretty clear that Nancy Reagan was making sure her husband did not change his mind, so she made sure the story got out to the media," he said.
The president often relied on his wife to manage the details of his daily activities, Griscom said, even at the highest levels. On one occasion, Griscom said, he had just returned from Moscow and was reporting to the president on the details of his upcoming summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
"Have you told Nancy?" Griscom remembers Reagan asking. "You could tell that she had to approve it. He valued her advice, and she would have asked him, 'So what is it they have you doing?' So he had us go up and walk her through what that summit would look like."
Nancy Reagan embarrassed the president only once, and that was after she left the White House, when Don Regan revealed in his memoirs that she had regularly consulted an astrologer to decide on auspicious dates for various events. That habit occasionally made things difficult for the White House schedulers, Griscom confirmed. At one point, Mrs. Reagan used the astrologer's recommendations to schedule events during negotiations over a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets. "Mrs. Reagan plotted this out," Griscom said. "That story is true — I was the person on the other end trying to put that schedule together."
"This notion that she was tough to deal with is not true," Griscom said. "But she was very determined, and if she thought something had not worked the way she thought it should, you'd hear from her."
Nancy Reagan was remembered as courteous and caring to her staff, provided they proved their loyalty to the president.
"She surrounded herself with Reagan loyalists that Reagan respected," Gardenhire said, "and with that respect came the ability to say no if they felt they needed to, or to disagree with him. That was a big factor with her. Being a loyalist to him meant that their motives were pure, and if they thought he should do something, he had enough confidence in his longtime friends and she did, too, to listen to their advice."
"For me, she was wonderful to deal with," Gardenhire said. "She was a gracious lady, concerned with everyone's well-being."
On one trip, the first lady's plane ran off the edge of the runway at Charlie Brown Field in Atlanta and was stuck for a couple of hours.
"My youngest son, Andrew, who was 1, was there with his mother, and she invited us all on the plane and babysat him for almost two hours."
Griscom remembers her concern over the feelings of his then-6-year-old son, who was not happy about his father's decision to join the Reagan White House, which would take him away from his family. She arranged for his son to be one of the children included in her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign.
U.S. senator and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander said he remembers how thoughtful Nancy Reagan was to his wife.
Each February the governors and their spouses had dinner at the White House with the president and the first lady. "Nancy always carefully chose who would sit next to President Reagan, and both she and the president liked my wife, Honey," he said. "At six of these eight dinners we attended when I was governor, Nancy sat Honey next to the president — even though, by protocol, she probably wasn't supposed to."
Gardenhire fondly remembers his time working for the Reagan White House. He had been active in the Young Americans for Freedom GOP youth group and had met Reagan political adviser Lee Atwater when the two worked in New York's Republican primary in 1980 ("I had Queens and he had The Bronx," Gardenhire remembers). In 1983, Atwater offered him a position doing advance work for the White House.
As an advance man, Gardenhire's job was to work out all of the logistical details of a presidential trip, visiting a location several days ahead of the president's arrival. He worked on President Reagan's 1984 trip to Ireland, England and Normandy in France, site of the U.S. invasion during World War II. A few months later, Nancy Reagan's staff asked that he join their team, where he remained for more than four years until the Reagans left the White House in January 1989.
One of the highlights of that tenure was the Reagans' 1986 visit to London for the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah "Fergie" Ferguson.
"As a Southern boy, dealing with the royal family and all of that protocol was a real challenge," Gardenhire remembered.
His major headache was to arrange for the Reagans to sit together. By tradition, only members of the royal family and heads of state would be allowed to sit in the front of Westminster Abbey, where the wedding took place.
But Gardenhire insisted Nancy Reagan be included.
"We finally prevailed and she ended up sitting on the front row, but that meant somebody from the royal family had to be bumped off," he said. "And she had to have a Secret Service agent behind her, so that bumped another one off, way on down the line — that didn't go over too well."
The funeral for the former first lady will be held Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
Friday's funeral starts at 11 a.m. and will be closed to the public. Nancy Reagan will be buried next to her husband at the library. Details on who will attend the funeral were not released.
Nancy Reagan died of congestive heart failure on Sunday at her Los Angeles home. She was 94.
Ronald Reagan, the nation's 40th president, died on June 5, 2004, at age 93.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Steve Johnson at email@example.com, 423-757-6673, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, and on Facebook, www.facebook/noogahealth.