The Woman Behind A Great Man

From the first days of Ronald Reagan's administration, they were a glamorous couple, who seemed to enjoy the spotlight and who moved easily in the glare of publicity. Yet, no matter how public the occasion, Ronald and Nancy Reagan always seemed to share a very private pleasure with each other. CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan reports.

No matter how solemn the moment, they managed to show their affection. In a Valentine's Day card the president once wrote: "February 14 may be the day that they observe and call Valentine's Day. But that is for people of only ordinary luck. I happen to have a Valentine's life which started on March 4, 1952, and will continue as long as I have you."

Along with the tenderness in their relationship, was steel, a fierce protectiveness. She was his second wife, an actress he met in Hollywood. They appeared in one film together. But she gave up her career when they married.

Mrs. Reagan explained, "I was afraid that I couldn't combine the two without it affecting my marriage. And I didn't want to take that chance."

For that attitude, she was scorned by some. But others worried that Nancy Reagan was too ambitious, the power behind her very electable husband.

When Californians elected him governor, she worked to provide a full home life in Sacramento. Some in the Capitol Press Corps noted he was a nine-to-five governor, who spent little time socializing on the political circuit.

"I wanted to get home," Reagan said.

In office, the actor-turned-politician got some stinging reviews, criticism that Nancy Reagan always found hard to bear.

Mrs. Reagan said, "Whenever somebody would say something about Ronnie that I felt was unkind and cruel and unjust and untrue, I'd go and take a long bath. And I would carry on into imaginary conversations in the bathtub, in which I was marvelous."

The road from Sacramento to the White House, was not a smooth one for Reagan.

They campaigned together and separately. And although her husband's victories became almost routine, they never were for Nancy Reagan.

Mrs. Reagan noted, "The primaries always seem to come on Tuesdays, and every Tuesday, I have some stomach aches."

Only rarely did she relax.

He became known as "the great communicator," but she understood the needs of the media, too, cheerfully recreating a shot for the still cameras, shortening her comments to fit a TV news cast, and parrying with the more aggressive members of the White House press.

At a press conference, ABC News' Sam Donaldson asked Ronald Reagan, "You're not getting too old to run again, are you?"

And the first lady quickly replied getting a lot of laughs, "How would you like a piece of cake, Sam?"

She defended her husband against all sorts of charges.

"No, he doesn't dye his hair," Mrs. Reagan said at a press conference.

She denied he was old or slowing down.

With laughter Mrs. Reagan made the comment, "I know that he wears me out."

She was at his side in many difficult situations, including the Geneva Summit. While their husbands tried to reach an agreement, and the wives conducted their own diplomacy, Mrs. Reagan showed as much scorn as she ever did in public. When asked if she was competing with Raisa Gorbachev in a kind of style war.

"No," Mrs. Reagan said, "I really think that's a little silly."

Although the leaders achieved little, the president acknowledged the efforts of his wife to Congress and the nation.

He said, "I want to say a personal thank you to Nancy. She was an outstanding ambassador of good will for all of us."

The tribute that night marked a long journey for Nancy Reagan. Her first year in the White House was notable for the criticism she received for insensitivity and conspicuous consumption in the face of widespread unemployment in an economic recession. But that period of tension gradually passed after the president survived an assassination attempt. Nancy Reagan never felt altogether comfortable after that.

After a year in the White House, she was asked if the Reagans would have wanted the job that badly, if they knew what lay ahead.

She answered, "Well it wasn't we who wanted that job that badly. You know. He wanted that job. And because he wanted it, I wanted it for him."

And in 1984, when it was clear the president wanted his second term, Nancy Reagan hung in there.

She was with him in moments of triumph and of tragedy. And they were there side by side in moments of sickness and in health. In some ways, it was easy to poke fun of their marriage. When she looked at him in rapt adoration, while he repeated his set speech. When they waved at each other over television.

Her influence over the president was a subject of much speculation. It was thought to be great on matters she cared about, such as who advised the president, and how his image, his place in history, was to be shaped.

Reagan said, "It would be inconceivable to me to go my own way on something without her. And I think it'd be the same for her. I can't imagine life without her."

In his last written address to the nation, his final thoughts were about his wife: "Unfortunately," he wrote, "as Alzheimer's disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.

And he said about his wife, "Nancy's power is the power of giving me a marriage that was like an adolescent's dream of what marriage should be. There's nothing more wonderful for a man, but to know as he approaches his own doorstep, that someone at the other side of that door is listening for the sound of his footsteps."