Politics

Looking back at Nancy Reagan's Sacramento years

Ronald and Nancy Reagan at a victory celebration as Reagan wins bid for California governor, in a photo at the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, taken by an unidentified artist, Nov. 8, 1966. Photographic reproduction.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan at a victory celebration as Reagan wins bid for California governor, in a photo at the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, taken by an unidentified artist, Nov. 8, 1966. Photographic reproduction.

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Even before Nancy Reagan stepped onto the national stage as wife of the 40th president, she had left her stamp as the first lady of California.

Ronald Reagan won election as California governor in 1966 and he and his wife moved from Southern California to the state capitol.

He was a conservative in the midst of the free speech movement. She was a wife and mother and former actress used to being in front of the cameras, but not the glare of the lights as the state’s first lady. 

It was a rough adjustment for Nancy Reagan, as recounted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation.

The Reagans spent three months living in the governor’s old mansion before safety concerns led them to lease a suburban home, a move that drew criticism. But Reagan was a popular governor and his wife had a large role in that.

"One of the things that Nancy Reagan was really good at was she wasn’t that big on influencing her husband’s policy, but she was very good at helping him shape his message," said Wesley Hussey, Sacramento State government professor, in an interview with KPCC's Take Two.

But Nancy Reagan had her own list of accomplishments. She learned about a foster grandparents program that paired the elderly with needy children. She championed its cause and the program grew statewide and nationally.

She made it her mission to visit with returning Vietnam War prisoners of war, some of whom were not welcomed warmly as the country’s anti-war sentiment grew.

Perhaps most lasting, Hussey says the Reagans raised California’s political clout, shining a national spotlight on The Golden State that was previously dominated by East Coast states and Washington D.C.