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FORMER FIRST LADY

Nancy Reagan is picture of devotion, strength

WASHINGTON -- After a week of pomp, pageantry, and processions, all designed as a tribute and farewell to Ronald Reagan, one of the most memorable images will be that of Nancy Reagan.

They were historic images, but also ones of devotion, love, and strength.

There was Mrs. Reagan placing her head on the former president's flag-draped coffin. There was Mrs. Reagan waving to admirers during the procession to Capitol Hill. And there was Mrs. Reagan blowing a kiss as she boarded the blue-and-white Boeing 747 to return to California.

''The public has come to know her pretty well this week," said Sheila Tate, who was the first lady's press secretary. ''I would be surprised if the public did not think she was up there in the top ranks."

Mrs. Reagan did not utter a public word. Still, she seemed to tell a story about her 52-year romance with the man she called ''Ronnie," her role as best friend, adviser, and guardian to a president, and her loyalty during a 10-year ordeal as Reagan slipped away to Alzheimer's disease.

''She looked so shaken and so fragile," said Phil Gramm, former Republican senator from Texas. ''So alone. I think that is the right phrase, so alone."

Doug Cannon of Houston, who worked in the Reagan White House for five years, added: ''There was nothing to add. Everyone knew her great, intense feelings for him."

Indeed, she may have appeared frail and wan, as she clasped the arm of her military escort. Even so, she also looked strong and resolute.

Those who have studied or known the former first lady said this week that Americans got to see what Nancy Reagan is all about.

''The thing I will remember the most about the whole week was her putting her head down on the coffin," said James Benze Jr., a political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College who is writing a book, ''Nancy Reagan: Acting First Lady." ''I don't think she was a good enough actress to fake that. That was real emotion."

For many Americans, this is a side of Mrs. Reagan they may not have seen before. During the Reagan administration, the first lady was sometimes the center of criticism.

During the first year of the Reagan administration, the first lady ordered elegant new china and lavishly remodeled the upstairs family quarters at the White House, decisions that appeared insensitive as her husband's administration sought cuts in social programs.

She may have drawn some cheers when she tangled for the limelight with Raisa Gorbachev. But she drew jeers for borrowing high-fashion outfits from premier designers. And Mrs. Reagan drew mocking chuckles in later years when it was revealed she checked the president's travel schedule with an astrologer after the 1981 assassination attempt.

But everything she did was for ''Ronnie" -- and she was willing to say so. The White House could not use chipped china at state dinners. She wanted the president to have a comfortable retreat. And she wanted to protect his safety.

''But a first lady is a wife, first of all," she told the Los Angeles Times. ''I don't care. That comes first for me. I'm sure with everybody that comes first. And I certainly felt that for Ronnie's interest -- it was to his interest."

As a young actress, Nancy Davis received unsolicited Communist literature and feared being blacklisted. At the suggestion of a studio executive, she turned to another actor, Reagan, who was then president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Their first dinner date sparked a life-long romance. ''My life began with Ronnie," she said in a 1975 interview.

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