Reagan Centennial: PBS Looks at Nancy, HBO looks at Ron
On Friday, Feb. 4, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (not to be confused with the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, Calif.) opened its doors for a special preview of the revamped Library (my photo at left), which has undergone a facelift and modernizing to coincide with the centennial of Reagan's birthday, which happens on Sunday, Feb. 6.
Meanwhile, up at the Reagan Ranch Center, the Young America's Foundation is marking the occasion with meetings and speeches, including one by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, aired last night on C-SPAN -- click here for the video -- and also Fox News, which broke into regular programming (don't know about the other cable news networks).
Tonight, C-SPAN (and, again, perhaps cable-news networks) returns to the Reagan Ranch to air, among other things, a speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney, starting at 10:15 p.m. (ET).
There are also celebrations at the Library over the weekend, and festivities on Saturday night and Sunday can be viewed in live webcasts by clicking here.
On successive Mondays, Feb. 7 and 14, PBS re-airs the "American Experience" biography of Reagan. Also on Monday, HBO premieres "Reagan," a new documentary on the 40th president.
But you can't talk about Ronald Reagan without talking about his wife, Nancy Davis Reagan. While obviously a love match, the marriage was also a political partnership. Those twin aspects are explored in "Nancy Reagan: Role of a Lifetime," a new PBS documentary by J udy Woodruff of "PBS NewsHour." premiering Sunday, Feb. 6, at 10 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings).
It's one in a series of programs looking at the influence of modern first ladies.
"Of the ones that McNeil/Lehrer Productions has done," says Woodruff, "this is the first one I've been involved in. They did Ladybird Johnson, and they did Betty Ford, and there are plans -- I would say, nascent plans -- to do other first ladies. We haven't done Rosalind Carter yet; hope to do her. Hope to do Hillary Clinton of course; she's a little busy."
According to Woodruff, in late 2008, early 2009, she began contacting Mrs. Reagan and her office.
"I know her," says Woodruff, "and contacted her, and frankly, just said, 'It's a serious look at the role of the first lady. It's not an hour of gossip. This is a program that will talk about the unique role you played.'
"Every first lady has an impact on the White House, on her husband and on the presidency. (I said), 'It's a chance to show the American people and to remind them what you meant to this president.'
"The biggest thing I learned is that she played a significant role behind the scenes, even more than any of us realized."
Woodruff says she sat down with Mrs. Reagan over four days in the course of a week in the summer of 2009. The result is an hour-long documentary in which Woodruff talks about Mrs. Reagan's effect on policy and most especially on personnel, always with her husband's welfare front and center.
"She's smart," says Woodruff. "She read the newspapers every day. She was constantly on the telephone. People joked that this was a woman, with the last breath she takes, she would be checking in with friends on the phone.
"She was such a presence in terms of his schedule, who was around him, whether he was being portrayed in the most positive light. She was always thinking, 'How was this going to come across to the American people?'"
Visitors to the Reagan Library can see both Nancy and Ronald Reagan's clothes on display, which emphasizes the disparity in their physiques.
"She was tiny and still is tiny," says Woodruff. "They were a couple of contrasts. He was this big, strapping man, muscular, and here was Nancy Reagan -- tiny, frail-looking, although not frail in terms of her intellect or the force of her personality.
"People talk about, Nancy physically may be small, but there's nothing small about her when it comes to her personality and her brains."
To date, the United States has only had first ladies, but it's conceivable that one day, the nation could have a first gentleman.
"Will he play the same role?" says Woodruff. "Based on what we've seen about first spouses, ladies, of recent history, I think it's impossible to have a separate political career. How do you have your own career at the same time your spouse is serving as president of the United States?
"It's a job that requires a team, a partnership, and that's what the Reagans brought. They brought his unique set of talents, the Great Communicator, somebody who had these passionate views; he could communicate them like nobody else. She was the strategist, who was keeping her eye one everybody around her husband and making sure it was all moving in the right direction.
"So, that job is so big ... frankly, I don't know how you do it without a partner."