The Reagans argues that Nancy was the real power in the marriage, and the guiding force behind the couple’s mythmaking. “She was like the studio head,” the journalist Lesley Stahl tells the camera. “She was the consigliere.” If Ronald Reagan was the sunny public face of the pair’s power, Nancy was the force propelling them upward. The couple met, the series explains, when Nancy, a working actor, finagled a meeting with Ronald, a divorcé who was then president of the Screen Actors Guild, and quickly began taking care of him. Nancy could be pragmatic: Although she wanted to quit acting, she took a job on a low-budget B movie, Donovan’s Brain, after their marriage in 1953, because the couple needed money.
Across the Atlantic, Thatcher was forging a path dedicated to downsizing government. But the force motivating the Reagans was much simpler. Nancy, who grew up poor before her thespian mother remarried a doctor, was anxious about money and fond of luxury. Both she and Reagan were actors accustomed to being tended to, who saw nothing particularly strange about others picking up the bills, whether it was General Electric outfitting their dream house in a “living advertisement for corporate America,” as one talking head puts it, or Reagan’s “Kitchen Cabinet” of donors paying to refurbish the White House to Nancy’s exacting standards. And if the Reagans managed to get rich, the theory went, nobody else had an excuse not to. “You can increase your own prosperity for the good of others” was Thatcher’s pretzel logic. As The Reagans interprets it, Nancy’s economic insecurity was a means through which wealthy donors could become benefactors, leaning on the president to cut taxes in the process.
In public, Nancy was an adoring and passive wife, known for the gaze she’d fix intently on her husband. “I agree with everything he said; I always do,” she once told an interviewer. But behind the scenes, aides came to see the breadth of her power. She religiously consulted an astrologer for matters as trivial as scheduling and as significant as the compatibility of Ronnie and Mikhail Gorbachev. Her “Just Say No” antidrug campaign, the series suggests, was the epitome of Reaganite self-sufficiency extended into public policy, blind to shades of circumstance and obstinately stuck on the idea of individual choice. Late in the Reagan presidency, most people assumed that Nancy was influencing her increasingly fuzzy husband, who was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
History expects women to be moderating influences on men. It requires of women a capacity for care that it doesn’t demand from male leaders. And it rarely favors women like Thatcher and Nancy Reagan, who appear to be interested above all in their own ability to thrive. The Crown never suggests that the forces motivating Princess Diana were entirely selfless and altruistic, but it conveys how attuned she could be to the public mood, and how deftly she was able to respond. In the fourth season, Diana Spencer arrives at Balmoral for what amounts to an audition before the Queen. Every test that Thatcher failed, Diana aces. As Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) recounts to his girlfriend, Camilla (Emerald Fennell), the performance garners her “rave reviews from the whole ghastly politburo.” Diana is demure. She’s discreet. Her weekend luggage contains nothing but outdoor shoes. Her entire life, she’s been raised and trained for exactly this moment, a prize calf in a pie-frill collar and pearls.