‘She was a magnificent person’: Nancy Reagan was a powerful force behind the scenes, Brian Mulroney says

A year ago at Ronald and ’s place in the tony Bel Air enclave of Los Angeles, sat down for lunch with the late president’s widow — what would turn out to be their last meeting in a decades-long friendship.

Not surprisingly, the 93-year-old appeared “very frail.” But their conversation ranged widely, with talk of families, friends and the latest goings-on in Washington politics.

Much of the discussion concerned Reagan himself, his presidential library and “old times at the White House,” the former prime minister said in an interview Sunday.

And that seems appropriate. With news breaking of Nancy Reagan’s death at 94, Mulroney recalled the ex-first lady as utterly devoted to her husband and his career, and instrumental in helping him reach the pinnacle of American politics.

Postmedia News filePostmedia News fileBrian Mulroney, left, and wife Mila, centre, and and his wife Nancy, right, in Quebec in 1985.

“They had the most loving relationship I can ever recall seeing. It was really quite astonishing, but beautiful to see,” he said. “She sought to make certain that President Reagan was viewed by history as an extremely important president, and that is what’s turning out to be the case … She was a magnificent person.”

Nancy Reagan died Sunday at the home where she had hosted the Canadian politician, succumbing to congestive heart failure, an assistant confirmed.

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Mulroney’s term as prime minister overlapped the second half of the popular president’s 1981-89 stint in the White House, and he and wife Mila remained friends with the Reagans for years afterward. The Mulroneys and Reagans even vacationed with Margaret Thatcher and husband, Dennis, after all three conservative leaders had left office, he says.

Postmedia files Postmedia files Former first lady Nancy Reagan in a recent file photo.

Nancy Reagan asked the former prime minister to give one of four eulogies at the president’s 2004 funeral.

“She was delightful, entertaining, she was into the Washington gossip,” Mulroney says. “And she was a lot of fun.”

Nancy Reagan’s legacy as the president’s wife is perhaps more mixed than he would have it, though. The former movie actress’s penchant for expensive clothes, a lavish, Hollywood-tinged social life and even astrology sparked controversy during much of the Reagans’ time in the White House.

Admirers, on the other hand, argued she had infused Washington with a welcome dose of elegance in the wake of the Jimmy Carter years.

SHNS photo courtesy DK publishingSHNS photo courtesy DK publishingPresident Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.

After the assassination attempt on her husband in 1981, she urged him not to run for a second term, an instance where her influence was less than decisive.

Nancy Reagan was depicted as something of a “dragon lady” during her husband’s last four years in the job, as word seeped out of behind-the-scenes battles with senior White House staff.

She also helped persuade Reagan to take a more pragmatic stance with the Soviet Union, which he had famously called the “evil empire,” and to apologize for selling arms to Iran.

The former first lady’s own, famous “just say no” publicity campaign against drug use was as often ridiculed as praised.

Elise Amendola/ Associated PressElise Amendola/ Associated PressNancy Reagan kisses the casket containing the remains of her husband, US ex-president Ronald Reagan, at the Capitol rotunda shortly before he was taken away for a state funeral ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, 11 June 2004.

But she won kudos later for a dignified devotion to the ex-president as Alzheimer’s disease ravaged his mind, and she fought Republican opposition to embryonic stem-cell research. Some scientists believe stem cells could eventually offer a treatment for dementia.

Mulroney recalls Nancy Reagan telling him about one of the first indications that her husband suffered from Alzheimer’s, in the mid-1990s, and only a few years after he left office. The couple were just about to leave a packed restaurant in Bel Air when the other diners stood and gave an impromptu ovation.

“So Reagan turned around and said to Nancy, ‘What’s this about?’ She said, ‘Well, Ronny, this is for you.’ And he said ‘Why?’ And she said ‘Because you were president of the United States.’ And he looked at her and said: ‘Is that so?’”

The couple was married for 52 years, as Reagan went from Hollywood star to becoming governor of California — after switching from Democrat to Republican — and eventually entering national politics.

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. ChiuAP Photo/Ringo H.W. ChiuLos Angeles police officers salute as a hearse leaves the home of Nancy Reagan in the Bel-Air district of Los Angeles Sunday, March 6, 2016.

Mulroney said the late first lady was never keen to play a major public role, but stayed active behind the scenes, helping, for instance, get James Baker hired as her husband’s first chief of staff and, later, having Donald Regan fired from the same post.

“She was on top of the issues but most of all she was on top of the personalities in the political movement and in the White House,” he said. “When she spotted somebody who was doing something that was not helping President Reagan, she dealt with it. That was the end of the career of that guy.”

Nancy Reagan is sometimes recalled as a throwback to a pre-feminist era of doting, stay-at-home wives, the unwavering attention she paid Reagan during speeches referred to disparagingly as “the Gaze.” But Mulroney says such impressions obscure the reality of their relationship, and her role.

“She was tremendously influential,” he says. “Probably more influential than any first lady in modern history.”

National Post, with files from the Associated Press

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