Emerging from a decade of quietly caring for her ailing husband, former first lady Nancy Reagan has assumed a more visible role that puts her at odds with political disciple President Bush - advocating an expansion of stem-cell research.
Mrs. Reagan, who made the “Just Say ‘No”’ anti-drug theme a signature of her White House days during the 1980s, has recently moved from low-profile proponent to public advocate for research that supporters say may yield breakthroughs in treating Alzheimer’s disease, the illness her husband, Ronald Reagan, suffered from in the last decade of his life.
He died on Saturday at age 93 with his wife of 52 years besides him.
Just last month at a star-studded Beverly Hills fund-raising gala, the 82-year-old Mrs. Reagan invoked the suffering of the 40th U.S. president as she urged greater support for the cause of stem-cell research.
“Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him,” she said. “Because of this, I’m determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain. I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this.”
Previously, Mrs. Reagan’s involvement had been largely behind the scenes as she wrote letters and made telephone calls to powerbrokers in Washington.
Californians will be asked in a ballot initiative this November to approve a $3 billion bond for stem cell research. Backers of the measure credit Mrs. Reagan with breathing new life into the debate, which could put the state in the forefront of developing a new technology.
“Coming from scientists, it’s, I think, always held with some skepticism,” said Irving Weissman, director of Stanford University’s medical stem-cell research institute. “Having someone involved in the disease and going through the horrors of the disease is more powerful.”
Bush, the son of Reagan’s vice president and immediate successor whose own 2000 White House bid as a “compassionate conservative” borrowed heavily from Reagan, has imposed limits on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research because it could involve the destruction of human embryos.
Critics of those limits have argued such research may hold the key to fighting Alzheimer’s and a host other debilitating ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and diabetes.
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Family friend and onetime spokeswoman Sheila Tate said expansion of Alzheimer’s research has become a leading interest of Mrs. Reagan, together with “a great and abiding commitment to the Reagan library” in California. But Tate said it was too soon to tell how much energy the former first lady would devote to the issue in the future.
For 10 years, Mrs. Reagan’s singular focus was on caring for her husband and “protecting his dignity,” she told Reuters on Monday, adding that the former first lady has overcome tremendous personal strains.
“For any number of years after the diagnosis, when she would talk about it ... you could hear this incredible sadness in her voice,” Tate said. “And in the last three years, I’ve heard acceptance in her voice, and I think for her that’s what’s had to happen.”
Her husband’s illness also turned Mrs. Reagan’s life into one of virtual seclusion.
“She never wanted to be far from him. She didn’t like going out of town at all,” Tate said. “Obviously, right now, she’s in the shock that grief creates. I’m sure she hasn’t spent one second thinking about what happens next.”
But advocates for stem-cell research said Mrs. Reagan already has made an important contribution to their cause.
“Inside the Beltway, it provides political cover for Republicans of all stripes to indicate there is some room between themselves and the president,” said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Washington-based Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.
Casey Ribicoff, a close friend of Mrs. Reagan whose own husband, former Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, died in 1998 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s, told the New York Times that Bush’s restrictions on stem-cell research “angered” the former first lady.
“I think when Nancy Reagan gets her body and heart back together, she’s going to work feverishly for stem-cell research and the Ronald Reagan library,” Ribicoff was quoted as saying.
But Tate insisted that despite Nancy Reagan’s differences with Bush on the issue, “it doesn’t affect her support or relationship with the president.”
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD