Did we miss how *Nancy* Reagan won the Cold War?

For most of the last forty years, the media has largely treated Nancy Reagan as either a caricature, a kook, or a convenient punching bag. Ronald Reagan always insisted that his wife was also his most important partner, but while the president has reaped the accolades of history in his economics and foreign policy, the First Lady has mostly been consigned to discussions of astrology and her “Just Say No” campaign.

That terribly unfair portrait appears ripe for a serious rethinking. Washington Post reporter and columnist Karen Tumulty kick-starts the conversation today with this lengthy excerpt from her new biography of the First Lady, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan. Tumulty tells the story of Nancy’s work in getting her husband in position to negotiate with the Soviets in early 1983, working with George Schultz to open up the possibilities for ending the Cold War:

George Shultz, only seven months into his tenure as secretary of state, had just returned from a long trip to Asia, which included a stop in China. On Saturday afternoon, as Washington began digging out, Shultz got a call from Nancy. “Why don’t you and your wife come over and have supper with us?” she asked. There would be just the four of them, upstairs in the White House family quarters.

“So we go over, and we’re having a nice time, and then all of a sudden, the president and Nancy — both of them — are asking me about the Chinese leaders: What are they like as people? Do they have a sense of humor? Can you find their bottom line? Do they really have a bottom line?” Shultz recalled. From there, the conversation moved on to the Soviet Union, and the president began to talk about his own ideas for engaging America’s main enemy.

Shultz was struck by how much Reagan had thought about this, how self-confident he sounded about his abilities as a negotiator. And then suddenly, the secretary of state realized that the purpose of the evening was not entirely social. Nancy had planned it so that Shultz would begin to understand something important about her husband, something that had the potential to change history.

“I’m sitting there, and it’s dawning on me: This man has never had a real conversation with a big-time communist leader and is dying to have one. Nancy was dying for him to have one,” Shultz told me, still marveling at the moment more than 30 years later. …

Shultz began to understand something else that night: He had found a powerful ally in a first lady who understood her husband as no one else did — who was, in fact, the only person in the world to whom the president was truly close. In the years that followed, he would grow to appreciate more the unseen role that she played in protecting and shaping the Reagan presidency.

Far from the fussy-housewife or ditzy-socialite takes on Nancy that have dominated popular culture over the years, Tumulty paints a picture of Mrs. Reagan as a sophisticated political operator. She didn’t always come out on top — the odd rivalry Raisa Gorbachev touched off with Nancy might have turned out as a draw at best — but Nancy knew how to play. In Tumulty’s portrait in this excerpt, Nancy also understood the nuance needed to ensure that her work didn’t become so obvious as to touch off criticism or a backlash, and most importantly didn’t eclipse Ronald’s work.

Interestingly, Tumulty doesn’t appear to go too far in the other direction. There has been plenty of speculation that Ronald Reagan’s cognitive issues began earlier than acknowledged, and that would have meant Nancy ran things for him behind the scenes. Instead, Tumulty notes that Nancy rarely forayed into the West Wing, and tacitly paints Ronald as fully engaged until the end. Perhaps other parts of the book departs from this, but this excerpt never argues that Nancy was secretly running things.

If the rest of the book holds up this well, Tumulty’s The Triumph of Nancy Reagan might finally give Nancy her real due as First Lady. If nothing else, be sure to read the entire excerpt published today at the Washington Post.