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Ronnie and Nancy
Their Path to the White House -- 1911 to 1980
By Bob Colacello
Warner Books
HC, 608 pages, US$27.95/C$39.95
ISBN: 0-4465-3272-X

The story of America's First Couple

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 8, 2004

The death of Ronald Reagan and the brief reemergence of his wife into the public eye earlier this year reminded some of us how precious little we know about their private lives. Although we have a tremendous amount of documentary information about the couple, they seem to recycle the same basic fact -- the Reagans were completely devoted to each other and tended to distance themselves emotionally from others, sometimes even their own children.

Even their closest friends seem to have some difficulty understanding the Reagans. Vanity Fair contributor Bob Colacello has known Nancy Reagan for decades, which ought to place him in a special position to explore the unique bond between her and Ronald Reagan. Although Ronnie and Nancy: Their Path to the White House -- 1911 to 1980, the first of a two-volume effort, is an interesting addition to the canon of the Reagans it falls a little short in revealing the nature of the bond between Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

It's not because Colacello carries some secret grudge against Nancy Reagan. He's a self-described "libertarian conservative Republican contrarian iconoclast" of the William Safire school. Nor is it because of a lack of access given that extensive interviews with Nancy Reagan and her close friends informed Ronnie and Nancy. While the book performs the valuable service of correcting the historical record on several occasions, Colacello was unable to bridge the gap in knowledge we have about the Reagans. Given their private nature, however, the reader wouldn't be unjust by being charitable towards Colacello because of the difficulty penetrating that sanctum sanctorum.

With that in mind Ronnie and Nancy should be judged purely as historical reportage, relating the events of Ronald and Nancy Reagan's lives before and after they bonded for life. Colacello pens what is essentially a social history of the Reagans, detailing how Ronald Reagan's political ambition intersected with Nancy Reagan's tony social set. He argues, with plenty of evidence, that her social circle was invaluable to Reagan's effort to be elected governor of California and later to the presidency. His core of advisors, dubbed the Kitchen Cabinet, encouraged and advised him -- though Nancy often had an important voice in the process -- and when the time came for him to run were there to raise money.

"As William French Smith explained, 'We had social contacts and political contacts, and the relationships just grew. I think what is now referred to as the Kitchen Cabinet was not known by any title. It was just a group of friends that became an executive committee. And I think that group of friends probably may be unique in the annals of American political history, because it started with him, and at least the nucleus has been with him ever since. I don't know of any other situation where it has been quite like that, people are both social friends and then became active politically in furthering his candidacy.'"

Although Colacello was a friend of the Reagans, he maintains a balanced approach to his subjects. His admiration for the couple -- particularly Nancy -- is clear but he doesn't gloss over their less noble aspects. He argues that while the press had it in for Nancy Reagan from day one, she often seemed to enjoy playing the role of the martyr. Both friends and foes of the Reagans have their say, which prevents Ronnie and Nancy from turning into a paean to his subjects, as often happens when friends of a president and his wife pen their version of events.

Ronnie and Nancy does have some problems, however, notably in what Colacello focuses his attention on. At times the book lapses into a simple chronicle of the Reagan's social lives with frequent mentions of the parties and gatherings they and their friends attended. Given the book spans decades of their lives it was disappointing for the book to occasionally turn into a newspaper's society pages. Ronnie and Nancy also falls short in extensively investigating the Reagan's family lives. Though we're occasionally treated to insights -- including Patty Davis' rebellion against her mother and Michael Reagan's early alienation -- Colacello spends surprisingly little time exploring that facet of their lives.

Despite its failings Ronnie and Nancy is still an impressive effort. It's a difficult task to combine the lives of two people into one cohesive story but Colacello manages the feat with exceptional skill. Ronnie and Nancy is at once a serious history of the pre-presidential years and the seemingly inevitable path their lives would take but also an enjoyable story of two people deeply in love with each other. 

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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