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Former First Lady Nancy Reagan Has Died at Age 94; Remembering Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Aired 12-1p ET

Aired March 6, 2016 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:00:00]

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER ADVISER TO RONALD REAGAN: And frankly, she was the one who said, you know, if you're not on the team (INAUDIBLE) get this person out of there.

The major change when Don Regan was -- the former head of Merrill Lynch and he, you know, as (ph) treasury secretary and then he came over as chief of staff in the second term and Nancy just decided that he was not up to the job. And basically when the Iran-contra came along, she forced him out. She was the enforcer and that was a healthy thing. Every president needs somebody around who's going to be the enforcer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We just got a statement from Joanne Drake, the spokesperson on the Reagan Library. Let me read it to you and our viewers.

Nancy Davis Reagan, former first lady of the United States, died this morning at her home in Los Angeles at the age of 94. The cause of death was congestive heart failure. Mrs. Reagan will be buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library She will be buried in Simi Valley, California, next to her husband, Ronald Wilson Reagan, who died on June 5th, 2004.

Prior to the funeral service, there will be an opportunity for members of the public to pay their respects at the library. Details will be announced. In lieu of flowers, Mrs. Reagan requested that contributions be made to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation at www.ReaganLibrary.com. For continuous information on the work of the Reagan Library you can go to the Reagan Library website as well.

Anita McBride is joining us on the phone right now, former chief of staff for the former first lady. Anita, thanks very much. A very sad time for all of us who remember covering Nancy Reagan better on several occasions. What goes through your mind at this really, really sensitive moment?

ANITA MCBRIDE, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO LAURA BUSH: It is a sensitive moment, actually. And the first thought that I had when I heard the news was now she is with (INAUDIBLE) again who she missed so much. And on the last time that I saw Mrs. Reagan she was out in 2008 (ph) -- in 2007, in (ph) fact (ph) at the dinner for her majesty Queen Elizabeth (INAUDIBLE) at the White House and asking her how she was feeling and she said, you know, people tell me that it gets better with each passing day, but I miss Ronnie so much, it almost gets worse. I've never forgotten that.

I mean, it's an incredible love story and they were partners with each other in every single way. In their marriage, and of course -- and his work as governor and as president. She was a true partner to the presidency.

BLITZER: In every -- in every standpoint. And as I mentioned to David Gergen those of us who remember the relationship -- and you were there. You were the chief of staff for the then first lady. There was an unbelievable love story between these two people, wasn't -- wasn't there?

MCBRIDE: Well, I was a young staffer in the Reagan White House (INAUDIBLE) chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, who had a very nice relationship with Mrs. Reagan. What I remember, as a staff member in the Reagan White House she set such a standard for elegance and style. We all felt it. And she brought that to the White House, through her entertaining and the way, you know, that she dressed and even in (INAUDIBLE) that no women would wear pants in the west wing. And that (INAUDIBLE) I mean, that was, you know, a decorum that she brought back to the White House. That was very important and such (ph) a part of her legacy.

BLITZER: An amazing woman, indeed. Anita, stand by.

David Gergen, she was -- in addition to being a wonderful, loving wife, a confidant, she was tough. That was the reputation she had inside the White House, right?

GERGEN: Correct. You did not want to cross Nancy Reagan, especially when she thought you were leaning on Ronnie, her beloved husband too much. She recognized that the White House, as you know so well, Wolf, is full of pressure for people who want to tell the president something, they want to send a memo to him. And those memos can just stack up so that the president can go home at night with just tons and tons of paper to go through and the heavy schedule, and everybody wants his time. And Nancy was the person who said, hold on, guys. Slow this down. Let's keep it at a pace. He doesn't have to do everything. Don't send him memos that are 10 pages long. Put it in one or two pages. Don't keep him up at night because he's diligent. He'll try to read it.

And she just understood his -- she and Michael Deaver, especially Michael, almost a son to them. And Mike was there as -- along with the triumphant Jim Baker and Ed Meese in the beginning (INAUDIBLE) he was -- he and Nancy talked all the time. And she looked to him and they sort of figured out together, how do we make sure we take -- we get the best out of this, allow him to have his best, not overburden him?

[12:05:06]

He was along in years and you want to reserve, you know, his reservoirs of strength for big things not the trivial things that come across a president's desk.

BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, David. Jeffrey Lord is joining us as well, the former Reagan White House political director.

GERGEN: Sure.

BLITZER: And Jeffrey, you knew Nancy Reagan. You obviously knew the former -- the late president of the United States. What goes through your mind at this moment?

JEFFREY LORD, FORMER REAGAN WHITE HOUSE POLITICAL DIRECTOR: You know, listening to David -- Wolf, I was a young associate director of political affairs. Some of the things -- I would see her mostly at public events and that sort of thing.

But there are two instances stand out. On one occasion in the political office is in the fall of I think 1986, which is a pretty hard-fought congressional campaign, those of us in the White House political office had set up a series of trips for the president, stops across the country. He's going to leave the White House, you know, in the morning and head across and do these various events and end up, I think, in Washington State or somewhere in the West Coast, Oregon, what have you. And then, of course, we were going to -- we were going to fly him back to the White House on Air Force One. Well, Mrs. Reagan called sufficed to say, she was not happy. And she said, you know, my husband is -- whatever age he was at the time, 70 something. You are not going to fling him across the country and then fling him back the same day. So we are staying in California. Thank you very much. That was the beginning and the end of that discussion. So she was, as David says, extremely protective of her husband.

Later in life, after President Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I had a family member that I was very close to, my father's sister, and you know, was very involved with taking care of her. And I wrote Mrs. Reagan a note. Well, to my surprise, I got back this lovely handwritten, lengthy note discussing the president's situation and discussing, you know, taking care of somebody with Alzheimer's and everything. And I thought that was, you know, emblematic of another side of Nancy Reagan, the care and the compassion that she could feel for people. She was just wonderful.

BLITZER: And she became so active in Alzheimer's disease. Her husband, Ronald Reagan, he announced he was suffering from Alzheimer's after he left office in 1994. And she became very active in the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute to support Alzheimer's research, work on that and several other causes. She became very passionate in her post White House presidency years. But during those years at the White House she was always by his side, wasn't she?

LORD: Yes. Absolutely. She was -- she was I mean, that was her first -- that was her first, second, and last objective always, was to take care of Ronnie, as she told (ph) me (ph). I mean, she was extremely protective of him. And that extended at every possible level, whether it was policy issues, you know, talking to him about, you know, arms control, the Soviets and all that. I believe she had an interaction with the Ambassador Gromyko in the day in which --she talked about -- he said something to her about whispering things to her husband and all this sort of thing, about the Soviets and arms control, whether it was things like that, whether it was personnel -- I mean, she was bound and determined that there would not be a staff member in that White House who is taking advantage of her husband.

Or whether it was the kind of simple things that, you know, young people like myself would think, you know, let's just get -- let's get Ronald Reagan out there to campaign for X and schedule a whole day around it. She would have none of it. She was very, very protective of him. And I think she did a -- you know, she was wonderful in that sense.

BLITZER: And if she felt one of the young staffers, like you, was maybe making a mistake doing something that she didn't think was the right thing to do, it became very clear, very quickly, right?

LORD: Toast, in short.

(LAUGHTER)

Yes, yes. I mean, you know, you could survive it, but it was best not to go there, period. Sufficed to say, I never did.

BLITZER: David Gergen -- yes. David Gergen is still with us as well.

The image we all had of her was this loving wife, a wonderful woman. We really didn't know about the strength and the toughness of her until later, David. That was at least the impression I got from the outside. But you were there on the inside. You remember those years very well.

GERGEN: Oh, she was -- she was -- could be extremely tough.

She was the enforcer. Somebody -- you know, somebody has to be, in any organization, who looks and says, who is measuring up and who is not? If you didn't measure up in her eyes, you couldn't (ph) stay very long. Somehow you quietly sort of left.

[12:10:00]

GERGEN: But let me come back to one other element. She was not only protective of him. Together, they were very protective of the presidency as an office.

They very much -- I think, today, when we're going through this sort of boisterous, sometimes, campaign, they very much believed in the dignity of the presidency. And, you know, Ronald Reagan would never go in the Oval Office without a suit and tie on. And when he was shot, you know, he famously came to the hospital and first thing he did when he got out of the car was to button his coat. And he walked across to the doctors. And then when he was out of sight of the press, he collapsed. They very much believed dignity was important.

So it was my understanding, Wolf, that when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she was sort of helping him along, she got to the point where she thought for him to go out and give a talk or something like that in public might be embarrassing for him. And she did not want him to lose his dignity ever. And she was the one who said, no more. We're not -- this is the last public event we're doing. You know, we're going to fade off. And he had this long, grand good-bye (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: I remember those days. Frank Sesno is joining us on the phone right now.

Frank was CNN's White House correspondent during the '80s, covered the Reagan presidency, remembers all of those years very, very well. He now is a professor over at George Washington University in Washington.

Frank, pretty shocking -- 94, it's a good life she had. A wonderful life, indeed. But still very sad to learn that Nancy Reagan is no longer with us.

FRANK SESNO, PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: It's very true, Wolf. Nancy Reagan was a powerful, powerful figure in that Reagan White House.

She was always the most protective person of the president, whom she called, as we know, Ronnie. I interviewed her for a documentary we did on the -- on the Reagan legacy. I did a documentary (INAUDIBLE) one for the History Channel and really got a chance to know her and the whole family, in many ways.

It was not a very functional family in many ways. There was a lot of internal feuding over a variety of things. But her agenda always, always, always was her beloved Ronnie.

She was the moving force behind the very high-profile dismissal of the president's then chief of staff, Donald Regan, following the Iran- contra affair. She was the one who rushed to the hospital, having had some premonition she described almost as that something had gone wrong that day when the president was shot. She was the one who fiercely guarded his events and his safety, including consulting an astrologer following the assassination. So she always was his alter ego, his companion and his deep, deep partner throughout life.

BLITZER: It was an amazing relationship they had. The tributes are beginning to come in to CNN.

Frank, stand by for a moment.

Mitt Romney just posted this on Facebook.

"With the passing of Nancy Reagan, we say a final goodbye to the days of Ronald Reagan. With charm, grace, and a passion for America, this couple reminded us of the greatness and the endurance of the American experiment. Some underestimate the influence of a First Lady but from Martha and Abigail through Nancy and beyond, these women have shaped policy, strengthened resolved and drawn on our better angels. God and Ronnie have finally welcomed a choice soul home."

That statement from Mitt Romney just coming in.

Gloria Borger is joining us on the phone right now.

Gloria, like me, like Frank, you covered the Reagan administration in the 1980s. And you have some recollections of Nancy Reagan.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I do. And I want to echo what David Gergen was saying earlier, which was that Nancy Reagan really was kind of the protector in chief of her husband. And we talk about the evolving role of first ladies, Hillary Clinton having sort of a major policy role on health care. Nancy Reagan's role was very much behind the scenes. And she had -- she had a public role in her "Just Say No" campaign on drugs, but her real role was to protect her husband, and to make sure that everyone around him was on the same page and working for him.

I think she really had kind of a keen sense of public relations, because I remember after she had been criticized if you recall for buying fancy White House China -- do you remember that, Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, I do remember.

BORGER: And then on the Gridiron dinner -- and there was the Gridiron dinner was just last night in Washington, D.C. She did a very famous sketch to "Second Hand Rose", remember that? She sort of came out making fun of herself. And that was when sort of public opinion about Nancy Reagan changed in a way.

[12:15:04]

Because they said, you know what? She can laugh at herself and it was a brilliant -- it was a brilliant moment for her. And everything she did was in Reagan's interest. And, like most political spouses, she really had his ear. She's the last person he spoke to at night. And Ronald Reagan knew that in her he had his most loyal soldier.

And if she felt something was wrong, and David could speak to this -- she would go to her husband and staff would go through her to her husband. It was a -- it was a way to get to Ronald Reagan when you needed something to be done.

BLITZER: And a lot of us also remember that she was instrumental in urging her husband, who was then president of the United States, to try to establish some sort of personal relationship with the new Soviet president at that time back in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, and they did establish a relationship.

And we all remember the beginning of the end of the cold war that developed in the years that followed. She was instrumental in those -- in all aspects of his presidency during those eight years. Jake Tapper is now joining us. He's in Washington.

Jake, this is a sad moment for those of us who remember those years of the Reagan presidency.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: It truly is, Wolf. She was, and remained one of the most admired women in America, long after she and her husband had left the White House. And in fact, her influence was felt up until recently.

In 2011, you might remember, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was invited to give a speech at the Reagan Library. And there was all this buzz about whether or not Nancy Reagan was among those who, at the time, wanted Chris Christie to run for office. She made some encouraging comments. She denied reports that she wanted Chris Christie to -- that she was in any way -- in any way pushing him. But it just goes to show that her influence and her approval was so important.

When we were moderating and hosting the debate, the Republican debate last September at the Reagan Library, it was clear then, based on accounts from her family and from those who worked at the Reagan Library that her health was failing. And in fact, the last few years, whenever there was that picture of Nancy at her husband's grave, memorializing him, less and less did you actually see her face in those pictures. They became more and more from behind, showing her grieving as opposed to showing her face.

So, you know, she had been ailing. So it's not a complete surprise. And yet it is remarkable when you take a step back and think about how influential she remained, whether it was her advocacy for research, when it came to Alzheimer's, or her hosting political events, such as that speech I just mentioned. People really admired her. They really cared about her.

And as others have mentioned, Wolf, one of the things that was so touching about her was her love for her husband. Ronald Reagan, as you know, published several of his -- several collections and memories. And one of them was a love letter that he wrote to Nancy Reagan, included in one of these collections, on their 31st wedding anniversary. And it said -- quote -- " I more than love you. I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone, I'm waiting for you to return so I can start living again."

Nancy Reagan published some of the love letters she received from him. And she noted, if either of us ever left the room, we both felt lonely. People don't always believe this, but it's true. Filling the loneliness, completing each other, that's what it still meant for us to be husband and wife.

It's such a beautiful, beautiful sentiment. And just to behold the love of this very public couple is really a remarkable thing. I would love to bring in Jeffrey Lord, who worked in that White House and saw evidence of this when the cameras were away and nobody was paying attention, other than the staff.

And Jeffrey, it must have been quite a thing to behold, the love that these two had for each other.

LORD: They would hold hands. I remember being on the state floor of the White House and there was an event in the east room. And the president and Mrs. Reagan were, you know, sort of in a holding room, as it were (ph) -- which turned out to be the green room. And they went in there and did the event and all this sort of thing.

[12:20:01]

And then they came back in the green room and she kind of -- she kind of faint, you know, mocked collapse, you know, as if she's exhausted. I remember her reaching for his hand. I mean, it was -- it was a constant display of affection.

And I remember on one occasion, she -- this is when she was discovered to have breast cancer. And I was working late that night. And he had been at the hospital with her. And suddenly, you know, the word came to the staff that he's coming back on Marine One and landing in the lawn and could we go out there? And, you know, those of us who were there go out there just as a show of support. Well, I have to say, he got off the helicopter and he did the thing that Americans are familiar with eternally. You know, smile and the wave and all that kind of thing. But once he got inside, he broke down in tears. So -- it makes me a little edgy thinking about it.

TAPPER: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

LORD: They were very, very close.

TAPPER: It's a beautiful thing. We just got a statement from former first lady, Barbara Bush, on the passing of Nancy Reagan. It says -- quote -- "Nancy Reagan was totally devoted to President Reagan. And we take comfort that they will be reunited once more. George and I send our prayers and condolences to her family." That's obviously a reference to her husband, Former President George H.W. Bush.

Gloria Borger is still with us. And Gloria, it's not a bad thing, I guess, in retrospect, when you think about somebody, when you talk about somebody, to say she was completely devoted to the love of her life. We should all be so remembered.

BORGER: Yes. I think that, you know, particularly these days, in this day and age when you look at political couples and there are questions, well, are they a real couple? Are they not a real couple? (INAUDIBLE) you look at those two and you understood their relationship.

I mean, it just exuded from them. There was nothing false at all about it. And that extended, you know, not -- you know, Nancy Reagan would go to the ranch with Ronnie, as she called him. And you know, the ranch -- she didn't love clearing the brush and doing all the rest, but loved it. It was a place that rejuvenated him. She felt it was a life extender for him. And she went. Right? Because that was where he felt the most comfortable in the world.

And she was absolutely devoted. And that might seem like sort of an old-fashioned thing. But I think that it worked for her, and it worked for him. And there's nothing wrong with devotion in marriage. Right?

TAPPER: Yes. BORGER: And they were an absolute team inside the White House. And I

think while she wasn't involved in heavy duty policy issues the way, say, Hillary Clinton promoted health care, she did make sure that people who had things to say that were important to him got through to him.

She was not uninvolved in the least. She was involved, as people knew she could be a messenger, when they needed a messenger, to take something that was important to him about the way he was being perceived, about staffing, about things that he needed to do to push things forward in his administration.

And I think she also had a real political sense, how Iran-contra was playing for him. And I think she had -- you know, she had a good ear for things like that. And people could go to her. They also however, didn't want to get on the wrong side of her, because that was a bad place to be.

TAPPER: If you're just joining us, Nancy Davis Reagan, the former first lady of the United States, the strongest supporter of her late husband, conservative icon President Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Reagan died this morning at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:28:14]

BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage, the passing of Nancy Reagan.

She passed away at her home in Los Angeles today at the age of 94. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Flint, Michigan. Jake Tapper is reporting from Washington.

A spokeswoman for Nancy Reagan said the former first lady died at the age of 94. The cause of death, congestive heart failure. Mrs. Reagan will be buried at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, next to her husband, Ronald Wilson Reagan, who died on June 5th, 2004.

We're getting -- we're getting statements right now from all sorts of people who remember her fondly. Donald J. Trump just tweeted, "Nancy Reagan, the wife of a truly great president, was an amazing woman. She will be missed."

Ted Cruz tweeted, "Nancy Reagan will be remembered for her deep passion for this nation and love for her husband, Ronald. The Reagan family is in our prayers."

Jake, a lot of us remember the unique role she played after the assassination attempt against her husband on March 30th, 1981, when almost every day thereafter, she became what was often described as his personal protector having lived through that awful, awful experience. TAPPER: Indeed. And the truth is that anybody who admired the

presidency of Ronald Reagan has to give credit to Nancy Reagan, as has been written. Theirs was a universe of two. They truly adored and worshipped one another and were there for one another. And there would have been no Reagan revolution, there would have been no Reagan administration, I think it's fair to say, at least not to the degree that it succeeded, without Nancy Reagan.

[12:30:00] She was such an integral part of his confidence, of his success. Suzanne Malveaux, fired -- filed this remembrance of Nancy Reagan for us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ronnie and Nancy, it was truly an American love story.

NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY: I can't imagine marriage being any other way, but the way that Ronnie's and mine was. And I guess that's unusual.

LARRY KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A little bit of a miracle, too, right?

N. REAGAN: Right, yeah.

KING: Something and the Gods brought you together.

REAGAN: Fortunately.

Oh, my dear.

MALVEAUX: A relationship not based on politics or power, but simply admiration and affection.

REAGAN: Together we're going a long, long way.

MALVEAUX: The joy they shared, a sharp contrast to the unsettled childhood she endured. Born Anne Frances Robbins in New York City, her mom and dad separated before she was even born. Her mother, Edith, toured with a theater company while the future first lady lived with an aunt and uncle.

When she was seven, her mother married a Chicago neurosurgeon named Lloyd Davis. He adopted her. And until she headed west to Hollywood to become an actress, she lived and grew up in Chicago, known by the nickname, Nancy.

SHEILA TATE, FORMER NANCY REAGAN PRESS SECRETARY: She told me that MGM was like a big Family. That she signed with MGM. She became part of that family. They took care of her. She wasn't, you know, afraid that even at her age, to go out there by herself because she was surrounded by people that helped her.

N. REAGAN: So young, so trusting. Trust me.

MALVEAUX: Once in Hollywood, Nancy Davis was busy. But, she almost failed before she even began, because it was the era of Joe McCarthy and the infamous red scare witch-hunt.

In 1949, her name appeared on a target list of suspected communist sympathizers. Upset, she turned to her friend for help. But, out of this anguish came the most traumatic turning point of her life. Her friend set up a meeting with the president of the Screen Actors Guild, a dashing leading man named, Ronald Reagan.

TATE: I have my suspicions based on listening to her talk about it that she really was -- she wanted to fix this, but she also wanted to meet Ronald Reagan, because she had heard how available and cute he was.

MALVEAUX: And thus began one of Hollywood's and Washington's most enduring romances. In fact, one of her last screen appearances was playing opposite her future husband in a movie called "Hellcats of the Navy."

N. REAGAN: I was afraid you wouldn't come.

MALVEAUX: Her official biography still featured on the current White House website. Quotes who are saying, "My life really began when I married my husband."

After being wed in this California church, she did become devoted to him. They raised a family, including their children, Patti and Ron Jr., and her husband's two children, Maureen, and Michael from his previous marriage to Jane Wyman.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan began a second career as a full-time politician and was elected governor of the nation's largest state.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thankfully discharge the duties of congress.

MALVEAUX: He was a strong and popular governor. And when he began to run for the presidency, she was always by his side and always gazing at him with that loving stare.

KEN DUBERSTEIN, FORMER REAGAN CHIEF OF STAFF: It was for real. That wasn't an actress, the adoration that they had for each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, sir.

N. REAGAN: I don't remember thinking anything except that, my gosh, here he is, and he is president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My Ronnie.

N. REAGN: My Ronnie.

MALVEAUX: After her husband's inauguration as part of the Conservative Reagan Revolution of 1981, Nancy Reagan signature was appearing a designer gown, especially red ones. She also redecorated the White House. Both moves drew heavy criticism.

KING: Mr. President, do you think your wife got a bad rap? RONALD REAGAN, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: We talked about it the other night, her and the press and, well, yes. And I think it was because of a kind of an opposition to me and everything that I stood for that they picked on her.

MALVEAUX: But, she had her own special grit, especially after an attempted assassin's bullet struck her husband.

TATE: I remember sitting in any room with her, and we were dealing with a few things that had to be dealt with and there was this pounding. And she said, they're pounding on his back. And it was really shocking. I mean, it was bam, bam, just to, you know, to get everything moving. And she was -- she never left that hospital.

[12:35:02] MALVEAUX: Few knew then how close the President had come to dying just a couple of months into his first term.

N. REAGAN: Yes.

KING: Touch and go?

N. REAGAN: Yes, it was. I almost lost him. A nurse would come in periodically, and give me updates. I remember one time, she said, "Well, we may have to leave the bullet in there." And I said, "Leave it in? I don't think that sounds very good." And they finally found it, an inch from his heart.

KING: Was there a time, truthfully where you thought you'd lose him?

N. REAGAN: Oh, yes. Yes, there was.

MALVEAUX: She also battled breast cancer and survived. Through it all, she had many admirers and some critics, too. Chief of them, her husband's former Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, who wrote a blistering book about her, including the fact that she sometimes consulted an astrologer, yet another sign of just how devoted they were to one another.

R. REAGAN: Apparently from what we hear, he has chosen to attack my wife, and I don't take kindly upon that at all.

MALVEAUX: She also used her influence to have a substantive impact. An anti-drug program was reduced to a simple phrase, when a young girl asked her advice and the first lady simply said, "Just say no."

N. REAGAN: I didn't mean that that was the whole answer, obviously, but it did serve a purpose.

MALVEAUX: After she and her husband left Washington, she needed her stamina more than ever as she struggled for years with Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's.

N. REAGAN: It's sad to see somebody you love and have been married for so long, and you can't share memories. That's the sad part.

MALVEAUX: Through it all, she never lost the sunny optimism, which was Reaganesque.

KING: Do you ever feel that fate treated you badly?

N. REAGAN: No. No, when you balance it all out, I've had a pretty fabulous life.

MALVEAUX: After her husband lost his battle with Alzheimer's, she was the focal point of a majestic state funeral.

DICK CHENEY, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: Nancy, none of us can take away the sadness you are feeling. I hope it is a comfort to know how much he means to us and how much you mean to us, as well. We honor your grace, your own courage and, above all, the great love that you gave to your husband.

MALVEAUX: After President Reagan's burial, she stayed largely out of public view and her heart ached.

N. REAGAN: There are people who told me that it gets much easier. Well, they do for them, but not for me. I miss him more now than I ever did. I remember more now than I ever did all the little things that we did.

MALVEAUX: She looked frail in one of her final public appearances, the celebration of the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth.

N. REAGAN: And I know that Ronnie would be thrilled and is thrilled to have all of you share in his 100th birthday. It doesn't seem possible, but that's what it is.

MALVEAUX: What she will be remembered for most of all, is her steady, unflinching devotion to her husband, both in and out of the spotlight.

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Nancy Reagan, former first lady of the United States, who died this morning at 94. Let's bring in Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley, to try to put Nancy Reagan's life into a little bit more historical context.

And Douglas, obviously, there have been many influential first ladies, but she really blazed a path of her own in many ways.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, she absolutely did. It was, first off, the great American love story. You know, I met Mrs. Reagan out in Beverly Hills with the idea of getting Ronald Reagan's White House diaries. He kept a daily diary log as president and hand wrote it. And I wanted to be the one who got it and edited it. And I met Mrs. Reagan in a Beverly Hills hotel.

And she had one stipulation before she let go of these diaries to me. And she said, "Never tell anybody what my husband would do." He was a pragmatic conservative and none of these pundits they knew how he would deal with Syria or deal with ISIS and she couldn't stand that people would put words in her husband's mouth.

When I finally got the diaries, Jake, I was stunned to see passages where Ronald Reagan would, you know, very upbeat, optimistic guy would turned incredibly mopey and write, "Nancy is gone for the day, I'm looking out the window, waiting for her return."

And you look at those passages and then read the letters that they wrote to each other and you realize that they had a co-dependent marriage and that became a co-dependent presidency.

[12:40:08] Ronald Reagan was the nice guy who liked to tell everybody how wonderful they were and that was genuine. He loved everybody. She was the judge of character. And if she thought somebody didn't have her husband's interest in mind, she nixed them.

So she was a -- you can't overestimate how important she was for the Reagan revolution and Reagan's eight years in the White House.

TAPPER: And Doug, you had a special insight into Nancy Reagan having met with her, having talked to her, having worked with her on those diaries. She was obviously a fierce protector of her husband's legacy. But, what was she like as a person?

BRINKLEY: She -- when I was given the diaries, I told, you know, because she would -- she had let me have them. They said, if you ever get in a weird moment with her, talk about Hollywood movies and sure enough, I mean, she loved Hollywood. She liked "Vanity Fair Magazine." She liked hearing about all the new movies that were going on all the time.

She also -- I once said to her that I'm not a conserve, you know, boy. You're giving me the diaries so conservative. I'm not part of the conservative movement and she glared at me and said, "My son is more liberal than you'll ever be. What's your point?"

She thought Ronald Reagan was an American president. After all, Ronald Reagan voted for Franklin Roosevelt four times. He had used to be a Democrat and he had -- while the right in America celebrates him almost like a patron saint Ronald Reagan.

Nancy Reagan is the one that said, "My husband represented all of the American people not just Republicans." And she was very keen on that. I spoke with her when they're trying to take Franklin Roosevelt's face off the dime and put Ronald Reagan on it. She was outraged by that.

She said, "My husband would never want to see FDR's face taken off the dime." So, there was a side of her about America, about her -- both of them saw themselves as champions of America, not just the Republican Party.

TAPPER: They met when he was president of a union, president of the Screen Actors Guild and there was a different Nancy Davis who was in hot water because of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Congress looking for communists all over the country, especially in Hollywood, in some cases. And that's when she met the man who would become the love of her life. BRINKLEY: Well, that's right, Jake. And she wasn't just in hot water. She was in today's parlance, a hot actress. She was dating the leading men of Hollywood. She was very sought after. And Ronald Reagan just melted over her.

And they formed a -- she felt, I think, you know, that previously when she would date different people, there was no magic to it. And then suddenly the two of them just formed this great sweetness and part of it became, you know, she loved Bel-Air, Beverly Hills a lot. He loved up by Santa Barbara, the ranch. But, they traded off on those likes.

So, she would go horseback riding with him and spend time with him in rustic settings and they just had a kind of relaxed feel about them all. But, Ronald Reagan could be very jealous. There's a famous photograph when Frank Sinatra was kind of grabbing Nancy for a dance and you could see Ronald Reagan standing there and like, don't, you're not -- you know, I don't like you dancing with Frank Sinatra.

They were leaders, Jake, of a set. They are, you know, part of it the Anenberg set of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, part of the Bel-Air, you know. But, part of the world of arts, in many ways and that's really what she loved personally the most. But as a lawyer in her later years, she was a lawyer, stamped out Alzheimer's disease and anybody who joined that cause was her friend.

She loved the fact that Teddy Kennedy would call her and talk about how can we take a war on Alzheimer's? And he would be one of the first people, always, Senator Kennedy, to call her on her birthday and sing her, you know, Irish, you know, "Happy Birthday Nancy". So she had it.

She liked people that loved her husband, that were kind and friendly, but if you were an enemy like Donald Regan, look out. And I've talked to people like James Baker and others who she loved James Baker and George Shultz. Well, she should have.

They were two of our greatest statespersons and Nancy Reagan is the one that saw, as a talent scout, those two have my husband's interest and mine and she doubled and tripled down on Shultz and Baker, helping to kind of create the inner circle of the Reagan White House.

TAPPER: Ronald Reagan, who ran for president four times, the first two times, not successful, 1968 and 1976, but he kept trying and he was only able to do so because he had the love and support of his wife, Nancy Reagan, former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who is dead at 94.

Let's bring Wolf Blitzer back into the conversation. Wolf, this is the loss of an icon and also, in many ways, the end of an era. The influence of Ronald Reagan may still be felt in the nation, but that's the end of the first couple, the Reagans.

[12:45:09] BLITZER: The influence is enormous. And Jake, you and I, we've been covering this Republican presidential campaign. All of these Republican candidates, not only this cycle but all the cycles since his presidency, they speak of that Reagan legacy, the impact that Ronald Reagan had as president of the United States. And the impact that he had was certainly influenced by Nancy Reagan.

Gloria Borger is still with us. Gloria, after they left office, she became very, very involved in lots of causes. During her presidency when she was actively engaged in alcohol and drug abuse to try to prevent alcohol and drug abuse. A lot of us remember her saying, "Just say no." But, then it expanded in subsequent years.

BORGER: Right, and then I think that Doug Brinkley was referring to this because after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she came out publicly and said that she was determined to do whatever she could to save other families from the pain she was going through. And that began her fight for embryonic stem cell research.

And she began this fight after President Bush announced the policy moving out federal funds for almost all embryonic stem cell research. But, as Doug was talking to, she and Ted -- talking about, she and Ted Kennedy became friends in this fight and she actually was on the phone, lobbying Republican Congressmen and Senators to vote for a bill to increase funding for stem cell research.

And she eventually, you know, when she set her sights on the senate, she was out there making calls, dealing with Kennedy, dealing with Bill Frist. And she -- there were some suggestions that she actually turned people like John McCain around on the issue, maybe Bill Frist, on the issue. And she was working so hard, because she believed honestly that it was a way to help others deal with the problem that she had been dealing with.

And then, in the end, when President Obama officially reversed Bush's policy, Nancy Reagan issued a statement in support of what Obama had done, saying that she was grateful that he lifted the restrictions and that the new rules would make it possible for science to move forward on this important issue. And, you know, I think she wished it had been done sooner, Wolf, but she was tireless in working to make sure that it got done at all.

BLITZER: Yeah. I remember that very, very vividly. Ronald Reagan, after he left office, was diagnosed in 1994 with Alzheimer's and he passed away in 2004. She often described that decade as a long goodbye that she had in caring for him and advocating for new research into cures for what she described as the disease that was taking Ronnie from her.

Our own, you know, Larry King, he often spoke with Nancy Reagan. I want to play a little clip, Gloria, when she remembered her first date with Ronald Reagan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

N. REAGAN: Right away. Right away. It was a blind date, as you know. It was a blind date. And I knew right away. It took him a little bit longer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: She said right away, took him a little bit longer. But then eventually, they got married. And by all accounts, Gloria, and you alluded to this earlier, they had a wonderful, wonderful marriage.

(OFF-MIC)

Gloria, can you hear me? I think we may have lost Gloria. But, she did -- but, we did have recollections of that amazing, amazing marriage that they had, that relationship they had, the influence that she had on the then president of the United States and after he left office.

We're continued to remember Nancy Reagan. She passed away, unfortunately, in her home in Los Angeles this morning at the age of 94. The cause of death, congestive heart failure. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:54:02] TAPPER: Welcome back. And if you're just joining us, we are mourning the loss of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who died this morning at the age of 94 from heart failure.

We're getting all sorts of statements and memorials from people who knew her, most recently from former President George W. Bush and his wife, former First Lady Laura Bush. His statement saying, "Laura and I are saddened by the death of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Mrs. Reagan was fiercely loyal to her beloved husband and that devotion was matched only by her devotion to our country. Her influence on the White House was complete and lasting during her time as first lady and since she worked to fight drug abuse and raise awareness about breast cancer. When we moved into the White House, we benefited from her work to make those historic rooms beautiful. Laura and I are grateful for the life of Nancy Reagan and we send our condolences to the entire Reagan family."

Let me bring back Historian -- Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley, who knew Nancy Reagan, who worked with Nancy Reagan on the publication of her late husband, Ronald Reagan's diaries.

[12:55:07] And Douglas, as former President George W. Bush just alluded to, Nancy Reagan was active in combating drug abuse. One can look back and critique whether or not the programs worked as the government wanted them to. But, what were the origins of the, for want of a better term that, the "Just say no" campaign? Why was she motivated to seek that as an area where she would be involved?

BRINKLEY: Well, for starters, she was in California in the 1960s and '70s where LSD was widespread, the marijuana revolution, pill abuse. And so, she started picking up on that. And of course, she had children of that age where that were influenced by flower power and it all seemed OK in the '60s and '70s. But, people started getting ill from drugs and dying.

Then in 1980, she was on the campaign trail for her husband, was in New York and talked to a young woman who said, "What can we do? I have a drug problem." And she, at one point just said, "Just say no."

And that phrase was spontaneous, but it got picked up in our popular culture. And she decided early in the first term about 1982 to really make that, but, you know, Betty Ford was very involved with issues of substance abuse. But, you had Nancy Reagan kind of stepping in and saying, "How do we get kids off of drugs that are addicted to them as humans."

TAPPER: And Douglas, very, very quickly, if you could. On March 30th, 1981, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, how did that change Nancy Reagan's world? How was her role as first lady altered?

BRINKLEY: I think that's the key question you just asked, Jake. I think everything went topsy-turvy. She was really worried that she lost Ronnie and she became a hand holder, watching after him every minute, making sure he's eating OK, making sure he's all right.

It became a full-time job of hers because she felt this great sense of loss. And I think the Reagans got closer to God after that experience. So, their sense of praying and worshipping, I don't mean church wise, but she's been looking for spiritual help. And she started then seeing that her husband had a great opening with Gorbachev on nuclear weapons disarmament.

TAPPER: All right, Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley, thank you so much. We're going to take a very quick break. More right after this quick break, the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Ronnie and Nancy, it was truly an American love story.

N. REAGAN: I can't imagine marriage being any other way, but the way that Ronnie's and mine was. And I guess that's unusual.

KING: A little bit of a miracle, too, right?

N. REAGAN: Right, yeah.

KING: Something and the Gods brought you together.