WASHINGTON – They were just four words, but they denoted something that led to a wonderful swerve in world history. They were words U.S. President Ronald Reagan repeatedly used when referring to something that happened long before he spoke his most famous four words: “Tear down this wall.” The other four words described the most important event in his eventful life, an event without which Reagan probably would never have been in a position to bring down the Berlin Wall:
“Then along came Nancy.” If she had not come along, he would not have come to the place he now occupies in history and in the hearts of his countrymen.
When filling out forms that ask if one is married, many people perfunctorily check that box. The Reagans should have put not a check mark but an exclamation point: They were the most married couple imaginable. Ronald was a reproach to every husband who does not write love notes to his wife as they sit together in evening repose. It was a remarkable woman who could elicit such private devotion from a public man with presidential preoccupations.
Reagan’s strength was reflected in his preternatural cheerfulness, which flowed from his marriage. Politics requires the patience, endurance and serenity that a happy marriage can confer. In a democracy, politics is a team sport. Parties are teams; congressional caucuses are teams; campaigns are teams. But often the most important team is the smallest, a harmonious marriage. The presidency has had three especially history-shaping partnerships: Abigail and John Adams, Dolley and James Madison, Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
Much, but not too much, has been made of Nancy’s protectiveness, her steely devotion to her husband’s interests. With her in mind, one occasionally wonders whether the reason most societies have refused to allow women in combat is not that women are too frail for combat but that they are too fierce for it: They would not obey the rules.
Ronald Reagan was a friendly man who used friendliness as a buffer, keeping the world at a distance from his sphere of privacy. He had one true friend, and he married her. She understood his amiable propensity for thinking the best of everybody, a mistake she did not make.
Her cool public persona and occasionally icy decisiveness sometimes obscured her warmth, her capacity for fun and her sly wit. She revealed the latter, for example, when describing a problem of Hollywood manners.
What should you do, she asked, when you are invited to the home of an actor or director for a private screening of his newest movie — and the movie is dreadful? What do you say to your anxious host when he asks your opinion of his handiwork? Nancy impishly explained: You fix your host with an earnest gaze and exclaim, “You’ve done it again!” Her husband was not the only master politician living on the second floor of the White House.
Nancy bore the brunt of much criticism from people who were inclined but reluctant to assail her husband. She did not enjoy these slings and arrows, but she was shrewd enough to be stoical about her role as alternative target. Today, in the midst of an unusually unseemly political season, it is salutary to remember that Nancy was faulted for what some considered her excessive interest in decorum and elegance in public life.
Now she goes to a grave on a hill, where she joins the love of her life. Atop that hill sits the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library. Emerson said that any institution is the lengthening shadow of a man. This library is the lengthening shadow of the woman who channeled through it her devotion that was undimmed through 12 years without her husband.
He spoke often of America as a shining city on a hill, words first used long ago to describe the American aspiration at a time when the nascent nation was a few hardy people on the continent’s rocky Atlantic shore. The hill to which Nancy now goes overlooks the sun-dappled Pacific shore of a nation grown great not just in size but in moral stature because of its fidelity to principles that the Reagans defended together.
For generations to come, Americans will continue to climb that hill in Simi Valley to renew their devotion to the nation. And to one another, moved by the luminous example of two people who changed the world as, and because, they moved through it as one.
George Will is a Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner. © 2016, The Washington Post Writers Group