The Triumph of Nancy Reagan
by Karen Tumulty
Simon & Schuster
Published: April 2021
Published this past week, Karen Tumulty’s sweeping biography of Nancy Reagan (1921-2016) promises a thorough, objective and revealing account of one of the nation’s most influential first ladies. Tumulty has been a columnist for The Washington Post since 2010 and was a correspondent for Time for nearly sixteen years. This is her first book.
Prior to the publication of this biography, readers interested in Nancy Reagan had relatively few alternatives. Among them: a salacious, gossipy blockbuster by Kitty Kelley published in 1991, Bob Colacello’s 2004 “Ronnie and Nancy: Their Path to the White House” and several generally-friendly memoirs and remembrances penned by friends and former staffers.
But while this biography is fresh, balanced, insightful and engaging, it is not devoted entirely to Nancy Reagan. The first 74 pages of this book’s 578-page narrative are dedicated to her childhood and early acting career. But once she meets her future husband, the book almost feels like a dual-biography of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Even when Nancy is not the immediate center of attention, however, her actions, influence and mindset are always in sharp focus.
Tumulty’s writing style is consistently straightforward and unpretentious, but it lacks the erudite literary flourishes exhibited by the very best and most seasoned biographers. But her narrative is uncommonly readable, consistently engaging and filled with insight and context. Tumulty’s book often seems less like a traditional biography than a piercing personal portrait drafted by a discerning reporter. And it will remind many readers of Peter Baker’s recent (and excellent) biography of James A. Baker III.
Although the relevant historical record seems both sparse and elusive, Tumulty does a nice job capturing and covering Nancy’s childhood. The narrative gathers even more steam when Nancy moves to Hollywood to work for MGM Studios. But the pace becomes even more robust, and commensurately more detailed, during Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential campaign.
Nancy Reagan’s eight years as first lady account for approximately half the book’s pages. Coverage of her time in the White House is unquestionably the heart and soul of the book. But the majority of this book’s emotional punch takes place in the final three chapters. Here, Tumulty reviews Ronald Reagan’s post-presidency, his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the dozen years Nancy lived following his death. These pages provide as touching a biographical denouement as I can remember.
Other highlights include coverage of Nancy’s anti-drug campaign, her turbulent relationships with the four Reagan children and her shrewd political instincts. Equally excellent are the numerous occasions where Tumulty investigates Nancy’s well-publicized foibles, faults and self-inflicted wounds. And the chapter covering her fascination with astrology is absolutely captivating.
But while the narrative is uncommonly accessible it can also feel gossipy and fast-paced. Tumulty is adept at embedding quotes and gluing together important events in the Reagans’ lives in an engaging way, but this book sometimes exhibits the effervescent tempo and depth of an episode of The West Wing.
In addition, although this book demonstrates Tumulty’s keen instincts as a political reporter it lacks some of the historical rigor and analytical persistence of a more experienced historian. As a result, this biography captures Nancy Reagan’s multifaceted persona marvelously but occasionally misses the opportunity to more deeply probe cause-and-effect.
Overall, Karen Tumulty’s “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan” is a comprehensive, wonderfully balanced, observant and remarkably engaging account of an extremely capable and fascinatingly flawed former first lady. And even if Tumulty’s coverage of her subject is not quite perfect, it is difficult to imagine a more entertaining, insightful or readable biography of Nancy Reagan.
Overall rating: 4 stars