SIX LESSONS IN CIVILITY FROM A FIRST RATE FIRST LADY – Mrs. Nancy Reagan
My Dear Mrs. Reagan,
March 11, 2016 – Today is your funeral. Strange, I am not sure why we are inspired to write tributes only once someone has passed rather than celebrating a life being well lived. I wish I had thought to do this while you were here so you could have enjoyed the accolades.
Back in 1984, when I began my first grown up job working in Presidential Advance at the White House, little did I know what an incredible impact you and your husband would make on each step of my life. As I prepare to go up to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library with my fellow administration colleagues for the celebration of your life, I reflect on all I learned from you and thought I would dedicate to “paper” what I saw as your civility in action.
LIVING A DIGNIFIED LIFE
In my time working for you and President Reagan, and every year since, you served as a continuous beacon of civilized behavior in an increasingly uncivil society. The remembrances in the media about you over the last few days repeatedly reference your grace, elegance and civility. As photos of your laudable life flash across the television screen, I can’t help but feel we are looking at impressions of a rare bird gone extinct.
Are both civility and you but a memory only accessible in the pages of history? You lived your life with quiet and steadfast strength of character, not loudly or boastfully. You were dignity incarnate — Perhaps I mourn the loss of such decorum and grace as much as I mourn the loss of you, strong woman and first rate First Lady. I am compelled to let you know what lessons I learned from you.
HONOR AND INTEGRITY REIGN
In the White House, we knew that our behavior was a reflection of you and President Reagan and we had respect for you and for the Office of the Presidency. How we carried ourselves inside and outside the walls of the White House mattered. We aspired to honor you both by behaving modestly and with integrity in all we did.
Heck, President Reagan would not even swear in my presence! He deliberately covered his mouth and then apologized when a “damn” started to slip out while walking with him to an event. Already it seems like a simpler time to me. It was a time when gentlemen roamed the earth. But you knew that. You knew him, and you knew he rightfully credited you for helping him be the best President, the best man he could.
EARNEST, HONEST & STRAIGHT FORWARD
I learned early on that although it is tempting to want to sugarcoat bad news, it was far better to just tell you the truth and move on from there even if the news itself was not what you might want to hear. I noticed that those who tried to buffalo you, perhaps to cover a mistake, or just not to disappoint you, lost your trust for good.
In one moment of truth, I happened to be visiting the Oval Office Suite delivering final details for a trip to Ottawa, Canada. The Oval Office was empty with neither the President’s secretary nor personal aide nearby. The phone rang. What does one do? Answer it! “One moment” the operator said, “Mrs. Reagan would like to speak to you.”
I probably immediately broke out in a cold sweat. What had I done? I was young, and new, and suddenly fearful I would say the wrong thing. I prayed I had the answer to whatever you were about to ask. But, maybe you knew better than I. You asked me a simple question. “What’s the weather expected to be in Ottawa?” Although I had the answer, I knew it was not the answer you would want to hear. I also knew that telling you the truth was far better than trying to dance around it all. You taught me that civility does not mean that you do not ask for, or in a sense demand a high standard of behavior from others. Those who were not straight with you lost your respect for good.
CLASSY IN CONFLICT
Oh, how you carried yourself. I imagine there were many times you wanted to throw the remote at the television, or send out a media missive in response to ungracious commentary, but I also know you judiciously chose your moments to speak up. And when you did, you did it from the perspective of keeping true to your values. You did not tear others down, or make it personal and you respected others viewpoints. Your husband protected our freedoms including freedom of speech, but you only spoke publicly when doing so would contribute to a greater good.
In the 30 plus years since I first met you and President Reagan, I have truly tried to emulate how you carried yourselves. As each year past I grew ever more appreciative for the gifts you gave me. I owe you both a great debt for setting a standard that would inform my career at each step.
You know more than most what a dirty business politics can be. Your husband deflected rather than derided and you stood firm on your views without calling those who disagreed with you names. The world will be a better place if we can find that sense of civility again and move from the political to the presidential. Watch over us as we tread through deep currents and help us stay connected to our better selves.
LIFE LONG LOYALTIES
Mrs. Reagan, your very dedicated staff and friends were people who came from all walks of life. You did not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color, sexual orientation or gender. Where you were discerning was on the important character traits of loyalty, honor and integrity. And certainly it is well known how you demonstrated the ultimate in loyalty through your dedication to your husband. Through your constancy and caring you were partner to his every success.
HUMILITY TRUMPS HAUGHTY
Finally, perhaps your humility ranks highest on my list of your admirable qualities. For it is no easy task to willingly stand in the shadow of another. Yet, you did so with a clear and vast sense of purpose. You pursued your own noble agendas such as “Just Say No” to drugs. But, I think you might be happiest to know that you are recognized for your most significant achievement as protector of the President. There could be those who do not appreciate the role you chose to take.
But, you knew what your best and highest purpose was and you focused your efforts on the success of President Reagan’s presidency and legacy and in turn earned a great and lasting legacy of your own. To me, you embodied the phrase President Reagan kept prominently displayed on his desk. “There is no limit to what a man can do or how far he can go if he does not care who gets the credit.”
I credit you with all this and more. Thank you. May you rest in peace with the knowledge that your personal legacy will remain a force of good and grace and distinction forever.
With humble appreciation,
Founder, Practical Protocol (www.practicalprotocol.com)
Contributing author, The Power of Civility
Contributing author, The Crisis of Disengagement (Fall 2016 release)
Shelby served in President Reagan’s Administration in the Office of Presidential Advance and as a Protocol Officer at the US Department of State.