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Ronald Reagan

In the White House

Presidential Aspirations: 1976–1980

Domestic Policy: 1981–1989

Television host and comedian Johnny Carson once quipped that the "Reagan administration was the first to have a premiere." These words reflect the way in which Reagan transformed Americans's perceptions of the presidency. A former actor, Reagan played to the crowds during speeches and was the first president to use his television appearances to his utmost advantage. His political presence was unlike anything Americans had encountered before.

Much of that presence was the result of Nancy Reagan's endeavors to glamorize the First Family. Mrs. Reagan had never fallen out of love with the dazzle, glitz, and elegance of the Hollywood lifestyle she and her husband had abandoned in the 1960s. Because she found the White House décor somewhat drab, she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars revamping and redecorating the White House to make it more of a palace than a presidential mansion. Nancy threw many extravagant parties and invited all their old friends. Actor Jimmy Stewart, for example, visited occasionally. With so many famous people visiting the Reagan's, the White House quickly became the center of the social scene in Washington D.C. Not since the days of John F. Kennedy had the White House been such a lively place.

Not only did the First Lady focus on glamorizing her new home. She also made sure that she and the President sparkled as well. Mrs. Reagan purchased expensive designer clothing and oddities, even going so far as to buy her husband thousands of dollars worth of cowboy boots. She hoped to be the next Jacqueline Kennedy, but to her dismay, she only succeeded in becoming somewhat of a political liability for the President. The American people disliked her extravagance. Although the money she spent was technically hers and did not originate from the taxpayers (much of it came from the Reagan fortune and from gifts made by wealthy friends), many Americans who struggled during the recession of the 1980s couldn't relate to her and found her spending distasteful. The media even jokingly compared her to Marie Antoinette.

Many insiders in Washington and specifically in Reagan's cabinet also disliked her because of her domineering attitude. According to many staffers, Mrs. Reagan tried to exert her will over the president and his staff, telling him what to wear and even how to govern the country. White House Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, even resigned his position in the administration because he felt that the First Lady wielded too much power over the President. He later wrote a book about his year in the White House in which he attacked her for being too pushy. The media, of course, used these attacks from Regan and other critics to portray Nancy as the power behind the President. She quickly became known throughout the country as "Queen Nancy."

This is not to say that Mrs. Reagan was completely unpopular with the American electorate, however. Her popularity steadily increased throughout her husband's two terms. This was mostly the result of President Reagan's advisors' help in boosting her image. To make her seem more of a President's wife and less like a "queen", they encouraged Mrs. Reagan to fight for several causes she felt worthy. This she actually did with a passion. She wrote a bestseller to raise money for the Foster Grandparent Program and attacked drug abuse in America with the "Just Say No" to drugs campaign. By the time Ronald Reagan left office in January of 1989, Nancy Reagan had become one of the most respected and influential First Ladies in US history, comparable to Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Although none of the Reagans's four children ever lived in the White House, most of them still managed to cause several stirs for their parents and the nation. Ronald Reagan's eldest daughter (and Nancy's stepdaughter) Maureen Reagan ran for a US Senate position from California in 1982, but lost badly, partly because her father refused to endorse her. Michael, Reagan's adopted son, tried to use his status as a member of the First Family to promote his business interests. Their son Ron dropped out of college to become a ballet dancer before eventually settling in a career in journalism. Ronald's and Nancy's daughter Patricia, however, caused the greatest disturbance in the Reagan household. For a while, she lived with a member of the Eagles rock band, and eventually appeared in an issue of Playboy Magazine. She also wrote and published a novel in 1985 that contained much thinly-veiled contempt for her parents.

Despite these setbacks, though, President Reagan continued to remain popular with the American people. In the 1984 Presidential race, he smashed his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, 525 Electoral College votes to Mondale's 13. He also received almost sixty percent of the popular votes. Never before had there been such a victory. Although Mondale lost dramatically, his campaign was nevertheless historic because his vice presidential running mate was Senator Geraldine Ferraro who thus became the first woman to ever run on a presidential campaign for a major party.

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