Bush Should Fear Nancy Reagan’s Ire

While trying to avoid ostentatious gloating, Republican operatives quietly confide their hope that the public tributes to the late Ronald Reagan this week will lift the sagging George W. Bush. That may happen for a time, just as the capture of Saddam Hussein briefly bolstered the President. By Election Day, however, memories of Reagan are unlikely to motivate anyone who wouldn’t have voted for Mr. Bush anyway.

Meanwhile, with typical taste and restraint, the Bush-Cheney campaign has erected a “living memorial” to Ronald Reagan on its Web site. Such strained attempts to associate their candidate with his professed role model may prove less profitable than they expect. Placing him alongside Reagan isn’t necessarily flattering to the incumbent, in terms of substance or style.

Both Presidents passed ill-advised and unfair tax cuts, but Reagan then raised taxes and closed corporate loopholes, which would be unimaginable for Mr. Bush. Both claimed to be opponents of bigger government, but Mr. Bush expanded federal entitlements and corporate welfare with his prescription drug bill. While both wielded American military power, Reagan did so without rupturing our traditional alliances, as Mr. Bush has so stupidly done. Indeed, this reckless, regressive Presidency has somehow made that one look cautious and prudent.

And although Mr. Bush resembles Reagan in his detachment from policy detail, the old actor’s public performance and rhetorical skills far surpassed those of his aspiring heir. For conservatives, this contrast must be painful to contemplate.

Invidious comparisons aside, the Bush team may confront yet another problem if they are tempted to exploit Reagan’s legacy. Her name is Nancy Reagan.

Officials who underestimated or ignored the former First Lady often learned they had made a bad mistake as their heads bounced down the White House driveway. They complained about her astrologer, her designer frocks, her epicene Manhattan friends and her expensive new porcelain. But she maintained an influence over her husband enjoyed by no other adviser.

The persona she projected in those days may not always have seemed attractive, but she usually exercised her extraordinary power in ways beneficial to her husband and, more importantly, to her country. Bright and tough, she showed little patience for the useless time-servers and right-wing extremists who had survived the transition from California. Despite her upbringing in a very conservative family, she was a political moderate in the Reagan milieu. Last year, she sensibly quashed the right-wing enthusiasm for replacing F.D.R.’s profile on the dime with her that of husband.

Now she’s the object of tremendous national sympathy and admiration-and the spokeswoman for a cause that cuts directly against the President’s “faith-based” aversion to scientific progress. She believes that embryonic stem-cell research may someday relieve the Alzheimer’s disease that destroyed Reagan’s mind, and in that conviction she possesses the kind of credibility that suffering can confer. (She wouldn’t be the first conservative to learn deeper compassion from a terrible personal ordeal.)

Her friends predict that in the days to come, she will speak out with increasing frequency and determination on behalf of stem-cell research, which the President has hindered with federal restrictions and constraints on spending. Surely she remembers how he spurned her private pleas three years ago, when he was pondering that decision. She must know that the Bush administration’s hostility to science goes well beyond the stem-cell issue, with its big, destructive cutbacks in funding for disease research.

According to press reports, Mrs. Reagan isn’t expected to appear at the Republican convention next September (though it isn’t clear whether she wasn’t invited or declined to participate). No doubt she remains a Republican, at least nominally, and she may eventually deliver a pro forma endorsement of the President, despite her well-known coolness toward the Bush family. Yet she hardly shares the religious-right ideology that motivates this generation of Bush politicians.

And lately, in pursuit of her passion for medical research, she has displayed no reluctance to consort with Democrats. Among her closest friends is Casey Ribicoff, widow of Abraham Ribicoff, the late liberal Democratic Senator from Connecticut, who told The New York Times that Mrs. Reagan was infuriated by the President’s stem-cell decision.

Last month she spoke publicly at a Beverly Hills benefit for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, where she received an award from the actor Michael J. Fox and a kiss on the cheek from singer James Taylor. Both entertainers happen to be staunch Democrats and supporters of John Kerry, an outspoken supporter of stem-cell technology.

“Ronnie’s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him,” she said on that occasion. “Because of this, I’m determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain. I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this.”

Let’s hope that her husband’s death brings some final relief to the grieving Nancy Reagan-and that she is as serious as she says about fighting for medical progress.