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'The Triumph of Nancy Reagan' explores former first lady's influence in the White House


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: During her more-than-50-year marriage, Nancy Reagan was also the most trusted adviser to her husband, President Ronald Reagan.

Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty is out with a new book about her and her influence titled "The Triumph of Nancy Reagan."

I spoke with Karen yesterday.

Karen Tumulty, welcome to the "NewsHour."

You paint such a vivid portrait of Nancy Reagan, the reader almost feels as if we are living alongside her. Give us a sense of the research, the work that went into this book.

Karen Tumulty: I have been working on this book for four-and-a-half years.

I started out thinking I'd be writing about a first lady, about a marriage, obviously, a love story. But the deeper I got into the research, the more I realized that that Nancy Reagan is a different window into the entire Reagan presidency, and actually an entire hinge point in our history.

Judy Woodruff: You spend a good amount of time telling us about her family, her mother, her relationship with her stepfather. How did all that shape who she became?

Karen Tumulty: Nancy Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins and the product of a failed marriage between an ambitious actress and a not-very-successful car salesman.

Her parents essentially split up as soon as she was born. And her mother decides that she is going to continue to pursue her acting career and her busy social life, and essentially abandons Nancy Reagan to live with relatives for the next six years.

And that really casts a shadow on her spirit that I think lasts for the rest of her life. She is perpetually weary, perpetually anxious, perpetually convinced that, no matter how successful she is, no matter how good things are, that life is just a trap door, and everything could disappear in an instant.

And, certainly, two months after her husband's inauguration, all of that seems to be confirmed when she almost loses him to a would-be assassin's bullet.

Judy Woodruff: You write about their relationship, of course. That's through the entire book, a love story for the ages, but also complicated, in that she was a take-no-prisoners, not just supporter of his.

She was -- she paid attention to every single aspect of his life to make sure it was -- it was successful.

Karen Tumulty: This really was a partnership, and I think a partnership without which he would never become governor of California or president.

She loves him. She believes in his greatness, but she also is fully aware of his vulnerabilities and his weaknesses. And she has skills that he doesn't. She's shrewder about people. She's warier. She essentially has a better, more fine-tuned radar than he does about the people around him, who is serving their own interests and their own agendas vs. who is there for him.

Judy Woodruff: As we look back on it, where did she make the most difference?

Karen Tumulty: She would say: Oh, I'm just -- I don't I don't deal with policy. I just deal with people.

Well, of course. I mean, Judy, anybody who's been in Washington five minutes knows that people issues are policy issues. And I open the book on something George Shultz told me about, which is a moment where she arranges a little dinner for four, the two couples.

The whole purpose of the dinner is to get George Shultz away from her husband's hard-line, hawkish advisers and give him an opportunity to speak to Ronald Reagan directly. And it is at that moment, Shultz told me, that he began to realize that, for all of Ronald Reagan's anti-communist rhetoric, despite the fact that he was presiding over the biggest peacetime military buildup in history, this is a guy who actually wants to reach out to the Soviet Union.

And, certainly, Nancy Reagan believed that this should be her husband's place in history, as a peacemaker and not a warmonger.

Judy Woodruff: And, of course, that's exactly what went on to happen. At the time, we didn't realize it, but she was very, very active behind the scenes.

Karen Tumulty: What people don't realize about Ronald Reagan is that, as affable, as amiable as he was, as gifted as he was connecting with the American people, that he was actually a solitary figure.

Given his druthers, he'd have been out pounding fence posts on his ranch. And it is really Nancy Reagan who builds and cultivates the network around her husband. She was an incredibly valuable ally to those among her husband's advisers who recognized her power, who could -- who could get her on board a policy or a position.

And people who were not on her good side tended not to last for very long.

Judy Woodruff: She's hardly a feminist. She doesn't want anything to do with feminism, but, through her power -- I think you called it intimate power -- she ends up having enormous influence. It's a different kind of woman's influence, if you will.

Karen Tumulty: Her power is the fact that she is quite literally the only person in the world to whom Ronald Reagan is truly close.

And starting in Sacramento, she begins to get much more sophisticated about her own influence, her own power and really her own role in his success.

Judy Woodruff: Remarkable book about Nancy Reagan, "The Triumph of Nancy Reagan."

Karen Tumulty, thank you so much.

Karen Tumulty: Thank you, Judy.

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