Nancy Reagan's Style and Grace in the White House

PHOTO: President Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan wave from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, Jan. 20, 1981.PlayThe Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
WATCH Nancy Reagan's Style and Grace in the White House

Nancy Reagan is said to have redefined the role of first lady. Her glamour was rivaled only by her advocacy as she gave voice to millions of Americans.

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In 1987, she brought breast cancer to the forefront after she was diagnosed with the disease and defended her decision to have a mastectomy.

“I couldn’t possibly lead the kind of life I lead, and keep the schedule that I do, having radiation or chemotherapy. There’d be no way,” the former first lady said on ABC News’ “20/20” in 1988. “Maybe if I’d been 20 years old, hadn’t been married, hadn’t had children, I would feel completely differently, but for me it was right.”

Following President Reagan’s 1994 diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease, Nancy went on to take a very public stand in support of stem cell research. She talked to ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 2005 about President George W. Bush’s opposition to it.

“You could save millions of peoples’ lives if you really charged ahead with stem cell. Hopefully we will,” she said.

“Still hoping to persuade [Bush]?” Sawyer asked.

“Well, you’d always hope. I don’t know,” she replied. “As I say, he firmly believes that his position is the right position. And that’s fine. That’s his belief.”

In 2009 Nancy met with President Obama at the White House as he signed the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act.

“There are few who are not moved by the love that Ms. Reagan felt for her husband -- and fewer still who are not inspired by how this love led her to take up the twin causes of stem cell research and Alzheimer's research,” Obama said.

Roger Sandler, a personal photographer to the Reagans, got to know Nancy Reagan like few ever did.

“She took care of every need of her husband’s, whether it was personal or official,” said Sandler. “If you wanted to get a policy question to him and couldn’t get to him directly, people would call Mrs. Reagan.”

“I think her legacy and his legacy are one in the same really,” Bob Colacello, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair who has written extensively about the Reagans, said on “Good Morning America” today. “It was very funny because she, especially as the years went by, she wanted to be recognized for how much she had done on the serious, substantive side of things, but she never wanted to outshine her husband. So it was a delicate balance in how she wanted to be written about. They were just joined at the hip. She was not only the gatekeeper but his adviser, his soul mate, his listening post, his public relations adviser and caretaker all the way through really.”

Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's former press secretary, agrees she was a force behind the scenes at the White House.

“I think any wife of a president, if they have a very close relationship, inevitably assumes some of that role because he trusts her. He knows that anything she’s talking to him about has to do with his best interest,” said Tate. “She never initiated any policy and she wasn’t particularly interested it. But she did have, people knew how much influence she had on the president, and so they would come to her making their case hoping that she would tell the president about it.”

She was not only a gatekeeper for the president but a style icon for the ages.

Red was her signature color since the 1960s, later dubbed “Reagan Red.” She once told W magazine, “I always liked red. It’s a picker-upper.”

The former first lady even made a statement in jeans on the ranch with President Reagan, championing American designers. Nancy also won a CFDA lifetime achievement award in 1988. Oscar de la Renta once told People magazine that Nancy “never made a single faux pas.”