Steely first lady became vulnerable in discussing assassination attempt

An increasingly fragile, almost 90-year-old Nancy Reagan has been frequently in the news this year.

First came the February observance marking the 100th birthday of her late husband, President Ronald Reagan. Then, on March 30 came the 30th anniversary of the 1981 assassination attempt on the president’s life.

Seeing today’s news photos of Mrs. Reagan, propped on a cane and appearing will-o’-the-wisp tiny, brought to mind her two trips to Grand Junction.

In 1980, she accompanied presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan on a quick campaign swing through the West, which included Grand Junction. In September 1984, when the president was seeking re-election, Mrs. Reagan came to Grand Junction to speak in a crowded Grand Junction High School gymnasium on her “Just Say No” anti-drug program for teens.

A part of that September 1984 presentation was a chance for three news reporters — one each from newspapers, radio and television — to have solo 10-minute interviews with the then-first lady.

As the newspaper representative selected by the Republicans, I had formed no opinion about Mrs. Reagan. She had come in for some public criticism for replacing the White House china, considerable redecorating and an absorbing interest in fashionable, expensive clothes. She had also been depicted as a sort of power behind the president. These were either endearing traits or wasteful extravagance, based on the viewer’s political philosophy.

I don’t remember much about Mrs. Reagan’s scheduled 1984 appearance, except that she asked the largely teenage audience to stay away from drugs. And, at a spry 63, she quickly learned and did “The Wave,” an undulating break dance, onstage with six teenagers.

My nine-minute interview was taped by someone from the Reagan entourage, obviously to be sure that I didn’t put words in the first lady’s mouth.

I probably reacted the same way as any other woman would have in a similar situation. I already knew her age because her July 1921 birth date had been much publicized. But, when I entered the room where I was to do the interview, I did a quick inventory of the slight figure, confirming that she was no larger than a size 6 and more likely, a size 4.

Like many small and seemingly frail women who want to be taken seriously, Mrs. Reagan had a certain steeliness about her. She seemed glib, perhaps because she had fielded the question many times, when asked what role she had played during the president’s first term in office.

“You can’t be married as long as we’ve been married without being an influence on each other,” she said. But she claimed their talks were never on policy. “When he comes home, if he wants to talk, it’s nice to have someone to bounce it off of. Sometimes it helps to clarify your position.”

While it wasn’t my lead question, I then asked one that seemed important to me. Did she still fear for the president’s life in view of the 1981 assassination try and was the 1984 campaign difficult because of that attempt?

The pain of remembrance flooded her face, and she said softly: “I don’t think you can go through something like that and dismiss it.”

Suddenly, Mrs. Reagan had stepped down from her insulated role as the first lady and become simply an anxious wife who worried about the safety of her husband.

There were a couple more questions about the president’s views on the Equal Rights Amendment and separation of church and state. She answered them as though they had been asked again and again.

But, to me, those routine questions were overshadowed by that one vulnerable moment when she became just another frightened woman reliving a grim, disturbing chapter in her life. And I had unexpectedly developed an enormous respect for her.

That interview has remained in my mind in only the most general terms, but I have never forgotten her reaction or the look on her face when I asked about the assassination attempt.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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