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Nancy Reagan Unveiled

PBS NewsHour to air its third documentary in a series on first ladies on Sunday after the Super Bowl.

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Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan

Photo By Matthew Cavanaugh/EPA/Corbis

WASHINGTON — Timed for Sunday night right after the Super Bowl, PBS NewsHour will air its third documentary in a series on first ladies, “Nancy Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” at 10 p.m.

The film is a portrait of a savvy political veteran who played a far bigger part in charting the course of the Reagan revolution than her public image has previously allowed. “She was very, very engaged behind the scenes because she cared so much about her husband’s standing in history,” says NewsHour senior correspondent Judy Woodruff, who narrates the show.

Speaking at a panel discussion last month at the Smithsonian Museum’s American History Museum following a showing of excerpts from the 60-minute MacNeil/Lehrer production, historian Allida M. Black described Reagan as someone who “knew how to take a punch. She knew how to get back up.” And, says the former project director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers at George Washington University, “she would knock you flat.”

Producers got a feel for that counterpunch back in the summer of 2009. According to sources, Woodruff, who spent five days in Los Angeles interviewing Reagan, asked whether she was pregnant when she married Ronald Reagan. Woodruff declines to discuss the matter, even though in her own book — “My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan” published in 1989 and written with William Novak — the former first lady seemed quite willing to do so. Reagan portrayed the recently divorced Ronald Reagan as devastated by rejection at the hands of his first wife, Academy Award-winning actress Jane Wyman, and understandably reluctant to remarry. Characterizing the first year of her marriage as “difficult,” she then mentions that Patti, the Reagans’ first-born child, arrived “a bit precipitously” less than nine months after the couple wed. She ends the chapter with a challenge to her readers — “Go ahead and count.”

According to three Reagan friends who requested anonymity, Reagan was so upset by Woodruff’s question about the matter that veteran Republican political negotiators were called to the rescue. Whatever it took to get the production back on track was worth the effort.

As veteran Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, who was interviewed for the production, observes, “I’ve seen so many disappointing documentaries and I’ve got to say, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen done on television on Nancy Reagan. I have never heard Nancy Reagan talk about the assassination attempt, about how she would have walked out to get a cab if they didn’t get her to the White House. It deals very honestly with how she was abandoned as a kid. I haven’t seen that on television. One thing I thought was wrong was they gave her too much credit for wanting to make peace with the Russians and not enough credit to Ronald Reagan, who was talking about it for years before he became president.”

The decision to air the show Sunday night coincides with Ronald Reagan’s centennial birthday celebration. Many of those who helped keep the PBS documentary afloat are now flocking to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., to mark the occasion.

The production’s most compelling quality is its intimacy. Reagan talks about her love for her actress mother, Edith Luckett, who left her at age two in the care of her older sister and family in Bethesda, Md., until her mother remarried when Nancy was eight years old.

Reagan’s position as one of the most fashionable first ladies in history is treated as more of a political liability than a glamorous billboard for American culture and style. Using dozens of pictures of Reagan looking dazzling in dresses featuring mostly American designers like Adolfo and James Galanos, the script lauds her ability to win hearts and minds when she makes fun of herself as a Fanny Brice-Barbra Streisand, Second Hand Rose look-alike, singing in a sketch written by veteran journalists for their annual Gridiron show.

Surprisingly, it is the documentary’s attempt to describe Reagan as a Fifties throwback compared to Democratic and Republican contemporaries Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford that proves the most ironic. Reagan was the only one of the three to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. But in an era where women now run major Fortune 500 companies, her role as a behind-the-scenes political leader places her squarely in the camp of women who run the world.

As Frederick Ryan, chairman of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, and the man who served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff after he left the White House, explains, “If you are 20 years old today, you weren’t born when Reagan was in office. If you are 35 years old, you were a third grader,’’ says Ryan, who does not appear in the documentary. “This is a great refresher for people who remember that time. It also offers a broader view of Nancy Reagan and her role, enlightening younger people. This documentary shows that, with the passage of time, all the details fit into their proper perspective.”

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