updated 6/9/2004 2:29:08 PM ET 2004-06-09T18:29:08

Guests: Kate Medina, Sheila Tate, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Sheila Tate, Sheldon Goldberg

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER:  DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT.

DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST:  The unbreakable bond.  Nancy Reagan‘s final farewell to the man she loved.  Ronald and Nancy Reagan‘s old-fashioned romance. 

NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY:  I am his greatest fan.  I don‘t think there‘s anything in the world he can‘t do. 

NORVILLE:  She was his partner and protector. 

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Doing everything we can. 

NORVILLE:  The story of an inseparable couple whose lives played out on the world stage. 

N. REAGAN:  What would have happened to me if I hadn‘t married Ronnie?

NORVILLE:  A formidable team that lasted more than half a century, until fate cruelly intervened. 

N. REAGAN:  Ronnie‘s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him. 

NORVILLE:  Tonight, Nancy Reagan, from Hollywood romance... 

R. REAGAN:  How do you know so much about the moon?

N. REAGAN:  I know a lot about it.  I spend all my time looking at it when you‘re away. 

NORVILLE:  ... to her powerful role in the White House. 

N. REAGAN:  I think I am aware of people who are trying to take advantage of my husband, who are trying to end-run him. 

NORVILLE:  Those not so private love letters. 

R. REAGAN:  What do you say about someone who gives your life meaning?

NORVILLE:  And the ongoing search to find a cure for the disease that took her beloved Ronnie from her years ago. 

R. REAGAN:  So Nancy, in front of all your friends here today, let me say thank you for all you do.  Thank you for your love.  And thank you for just being you.

ANNOUNCER:  This is a special edition of DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT, “Ronald and Nancy Reagan: An American Love Affair.”  From studio 3-k in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NORVILLE:  And good evening. 

By the tens of thousands, they‘ve come to say goodbye to Ronald Reagan.  An enormous outpouring of love and respect for this nation‘s 40th president. 

Mr. Reagan‘s body lies in repose at his presidential library in California.  People began filing by yesterday afternoon, many of them waiting in line up to 12 hours for a chance to see the president‘s flag-draped coffin. 

They have now extended public viewing by several hours to try to accommodate the thousands of people who have turned out. 

Yesterday, we saw the touching moment when Nancy Reagan placed her cheek next to her husband‘s coffin, then softly told the Reverend Michael Wenning, “I can‘t believe it.” 

The romance between Nancy and Ronald Reagan spanned more than half a century.  They met on a blind date in 1949.  They were married in 1952, and theirs is a love affair for the ages. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

R. REAGAN:  Chemistry is, as far as I am concerned, I never like it when she‘s away from me.  I realize the necessity for it, but I think we are much happier when we‘re together. 

N. REAGAN:  There‘s never going to be another Ronnie. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  And tonight, we are taking a very special look at the former first lady, Nancy Reagan, from her long devoted relationship with her husband, her years in the White House, and her more recent struggle dealing with Ronald Reagan‘s Alzheimer‘s. 

A little later in the program, we will take a look at how she has become advocate for stem cell research, in hopes of finding a cure for Alzheimer‘s and other related diseases. 

But first, check out the love affair being Ron and Nancy Reagan. 

Joining me this evening are Kate Medina.  She‘s the executive editor at Random House.  She helped Mrs. Reagan edit a book of love letters from the president, entitled, “I love you, Ronnie.” 

Also with us tonight is Sheila Tate, the former first lady‘s press secretary during the White House years, a long-time friend of both of the Reagans. 

And thank you, ladies, both for being with us. 

Mrs. Tate, I‘ll start with you first.

Nancy Reagan said that she didn‘t start living until Ronald Reagan entered her life.  Theirs was an incredible love affair that one doesn‘t see replicated very often. 

SHEILA TATE, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY TO NANCY REAGAN:  It was a genuine true love affair, absolutely, for 52 years.  And—and this week, she‘s—she‘s keeping her final commitment and saying her last goodbye. 

NORVILLE:  How is she doing?  How is she coping under the stress of all of the ceremony and the appearances that she has to be a part of?

TATE:  Well, I‘m sure, you know, it‘s a fog of shock.  But it‘s so great to see her with her kids, and—and I know that their presence has got to be a huge comfort to her. 

NORVILLE:  Yes, and one of the things that‘s so wonderful about looking back at the Reagan years is there is no question that the love that Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan had for one another was absolutely undying. 

And Kate Medina, you had the incredible experience of being the person to help share that love with people around the world, when Mrs. Reagan called you and said, “I‘ve got some sacks of stuff you might want to take a look at.” 

How did this book come to be?

KATE MEDINA, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, RANDOM HOUSE:  Well, she called me, and she left a message on my home machine, would I call her. 

And when I called her, she said that she had been reading his letters to her, letters from 1950, beginning when they were dating, right on through the presidential years, to donate them to the library. 

And she began to feel that they were so special that she hated to think they would be stuck in the archives, and that only people with access to the archives could read them.  And she thought maybe she should do something with them.

And what I remember most is that she did not want to be parted from those letters.  I think they were a—they were a connection to Ronnie at that point.  And...

NORVILLE:  You mean physically, she didn‘t want to be separated from the documents?

MEDINA:  She didn‘t want to be separated.  Yes, because I said, why don‘t you send me a couple, and we‘ll talk about it.  And she said, oh, I really don‘t—I was thinking Xeroxes.  I wasn‘t thinking—so I said, “I‘ll come out.” 

And so I went out to California, and she arrived with these, I think it was five or six shopping bags full of letters and cards, millions of cards, with his little pictures and signature and special greeting on them. 

And we sat there for, I think, something like six hours, reading these letters and crying. 

NORVILLE:  As a woman, what struck you when you looked at these letters?  Forget being a book editor, forget the publishing business.  As a woman, how did it strike you?

MEDINA:  Well, they are beautiful letters.  I noticed, you know, it‘s the same voice that I wrote in, in 1950 and 1952 right on through to the Alzheimer‘s letter.  It was the same writer.  It was the same natural voice. 

But I liked very much his inventiveness.  He found more ways to say, “I love” you than you can imagine.  And my feeling was, I‘d like to get letters like this from somebody I didn‘t even particularly like, because they were so genuine, and they seemed to be full of so much love and so much respect for her. 

NORVILLE:  Sheila Tate, you‘re chuckling down there in Washington.  I know this brings back great memories.  Do you recall any of these letters coming over the transit when you were working directly with Mrs. Reagan?

TATE:  No.  No.  No, she kept them to herself. 

I do remember that you know his great gambit of always sending flowers to her mother on Nancy Reagan‘s birthday, to thank her for having Nancy, which has got to be just a brilliant idea for anybody. 

But she used to schlep over to that card shop, right across from the White House, and buy boatloads of cards at a time.  And when his birthday came around, she would—the way she would entertain him would be with these wonderful cards that she would hide all over the place so that he would find them all during the course of the day. 

They really worked at their marriage. 

NORVILLE:  It‘s a lesson probably for a lot of us in that.  Kate, what are some of your favorites?  I mean, you went through so many hundreds of letters, to cull down what made the final copy of the book, but I know there are some more touching to you for various reasons. 

MEDINA:  Well, a lot of them talk about how they don‘t like to be apart, that he misses her when she leaves the room.  And I thought that the letters were partly a way to stay in touch. 

NORVILLE:  Well, there‘s one letter that he wrote in 1983 on their anniversary.  And he said, quote, “Thirty-one years of marriage, of such happiness as comes to few men, like adolescents‘ dream of what marriage should be.  When you aren‘t there, I‘m no place, just lost in time and space.  I‘m not whole without you.  You are life itself to me.”

I‘ve got to tell you, there‘s got to be every wife in America going like this to her husband. 

MEDINA:  Right.

NORVILLE:  “Check this out.  You‘ve never done anything like that. 

They are wonderful. 

MEDINA:  They‘re wonderful, and they start in 1950, and they go right through the years when he was making movies and traveling a lot, the years when he was traveling for G.E., Sacramento, from Air Force One, he writes her. 

I guess I like one of the ones where he‘s—he‘s writing from the White House, March 4, 1981, where he says that, “As president of the United States, it is my honor and privilege to cite you for service above and beyond the call of duty in that you have made one man, me, the most happy man in the world for 29 years.” 

Then he goes on later, he says, “You have done this in spite of the fact that he still can‘t find the words to tell you how lost I would be without you.  He sits in the Oval Office from which he can see, if he scrunches down, her window, and feels warm all over, just knowing she is there.  The above is the statement of the man who benefited from her act of heroism.  The below is his signature, Ronald Reagan, president of the United States.  P.S., He, I mean I, love and adore you.” 

NORVILLE:  Yes.  He was—He was quite the romantic.  And yet, Sheila Tate, I know Mrs. Reagan once said, that all she ever wanted was to be a good wife and a good mother.

And she said, “I may have been so good at the former that I was not what I should have been as the latter.”  She acknowledged the fact that that incredible love affair with her husband sometimes didn‘t leave as much room as maybe her children needed. 

TATE:  Yes, I‘ve—I‘ve heard that.  I‘m glad that whatever shortcomings anyone in the family had, they have come full circle, and the family is reunited in a very loving and permanent way. 

You know, I was thinking—I remember she always—the first thing she did, if we traveled separate from the president, as soon as she got to wherever she was going to be, she would call the president. 

And I remember one time, we were in—we had to go to Las Vegas, and we were at the Sands.  That‘s how long ago it was.  And I was in her room with her going over some things, and she had placed a call, and it came through.  It was the president. 

And she started talking to him, and so she sat down on the bed, and then after about two minutes, she swung her legs up.  And then she put her head back on, sort of on the pillow, and she looked up, and she burst out laughing.  And she said, “Ronnie, you won‘t believe this.” 

And he obviously said, “What?” 

And she said, “I have a mirror on the ceiling.”  And they giggled and laughed. 

They really, really, really enjoyed each other‘s company.  Whether they were on the phone or via letter or when they were just with each other.  They used to love just to sit and watch television and eat their dinner on TV trays. 

NORVILLE:  Which is why her statement last month, at the diabetes fundraiser in California, was so incredibly poignant.  And I‘d like to play it right now. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

N. REAGAN:  Ronnie‘s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place, where I can no longer reach him.  We can‘t share the wonderful memories of our 52 years together, and I think that‘s probably the hardest part.  And because of this, I‘m determined to do what I can to save other families from this pain. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Nancy Reagan has become a fierce advocate for Alzheimer‘s research and stem cell research, in particular, and I know, Kate, part of the proceeds from this book has been directed to the Alzheimer‘s association... 

MEDINA:  That‘s right. 

NORVILLE:  ... as well as the Reagan library.  Of the book, she said that she hoped that these letters with would not only preserve the happy times, but above all, preserve the voice of the Ronald Reagan that she knew and loved. 

MEDINA:  That‘s right. 

NORVILLE:  Why is that so important to Mrs. Reagan?

MEDINA:  I think that she felt that on a certain level, she was the only person who really knew Ronnie, and I think there—maybe so.  In that the letters showed something of the quality of the man that she knew, and that it was always there from 1950 to the—for all of his life. 

We included the Alzheimer‘s letter at the end of the book, because I think that she knew that if you read the letters that he‘d been writing all these years, you would see that—there were remarks that he couldn‘t have written that beautiful letter, but when you read this book, you see that that is the same writer, who is writing all these years. 

I think that the character of the relationship she felt was very important in his life.  And the book is—shows it. 

NORVILLE:  The book is called, “I Love You, Ronnie.”  It‘s a collection of letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan.  Kate Medina is the editor in chief, who made this book happen.  Thank you so much for being with us. 

MEDINA:  Thank you.

NORVILLE:  Good to see you.  We‘ll be back in just a moment.  We will also be joined by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  Coming up, Nancy Reagan in the White House. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mrs. Reagan, was Don Regan wrong about what you supposedly said about Mrs. Gorbachev?

N. REAGAN:  Absolutely.

ANNOUNCER:  Nancy Reagan, first lady, when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Together, Ronald and Nancy Reagan became one of the most famous and most devout—devoted political couples of all time.  And as Ronald Reagan‘s political career took off, Nancy Reagan was right there by his side. 

Their friends say that without Nancy, there probably would have never been a Governor or President Reagan. 

Joining me now to give us more insight into Nancy Reagan‘s years as first lady are presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and continuing with me is Sheila Tate, who was Nancy Reagan‘s press secretary from 1981 to 1985.

Mrs. Tate, did Nancy Reagan get a bum rap, when she was first lady?

TATE:  She had a—She had a bumpy road the first year or so. 

There‘s a—There‘s a need for the press to define people pretty quickly, and she, because of a combination of circumstances, she was kind of slow in allowing that definition to play out, accurately, I think.

So the press got kind of a one-dimensional view of her that really wasn‘t the Nancy Reagan that I came to know. 

NORVILLE:  The view that the press portrayed was a woman who, quite frankly was shallow, who was obsessed with great clothes and glamour, and expensive china and bought that new service of dishes for the White House.

TATE:  Right.

NORVILLE:  Contrasting with the Carters, who had sort of prided themselves on this homespun quality to the White House.  Did it upset her to be portrayed that way?

TATE:  Yes, I think it confused her too, because she felt like, first of all, she kept saying, “But the china is being donated.”  And you could never get that through the media filter, that—that, you know, this wasn‘t government money paying for this china. 

I even went so far—Doris will appreciate this.  I went back and did some research and determined that Eleanor Roosevelt bought china during the Depression.  It was paid for by the Department of the Interior, and in current dollars, cost just as much as the Reagan china. 

I handed it to Helen Thomas, and I said, “Here, look at this.”

And she said, “Rather defensive, aren‘t you?”

NORVILLE:  Why did Nancy Reagan become the person in the crosshairs so quickly in Washington?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Well, I think it was really a matter of timing.  The country was still in a recession in those early years.

And even though she came in, and the White House was in state of disrepair, and she wanted to make it better as symbol for the country, many people felt at a time like this, when a lot of people were hurting, they didn‘t want to see fancy receptions and elegant designer clothes coming into the White House. 

The interesting parallel is that when Mary Todd Lincoln came into the White House in 1861, she too found the White House in disrepair, and she wanted to make it elegant so it could be a symbol of the union.  She also thought it was important that she had great clothes so that her husband would be proud of her, but her timing was terrible, because the Civil War was happening. 

Obviously Jackie Kennedy‘s timing was exactly right.  When she tried to do exactly the same thing as Mary Todd Lincoln and Nancy Reagan, but was lionized for her efforts. 

NORVILLE:  And yet Nancy Reagan, she quickly realized, well, a couple years into it realized that there was a way to maybe take the edge off of this.  There was that great moment, I think it was at the gridiron dinner, when she came walking out doing her own impersonation of Second Hand Rose, called Second Hand Clothes.  And she stole the house. 

GOODWIN:  And there‘s no question that there‘s nothing the press likes more, than a political figure or in this case the first lady being willing to make fun of herself. 

So when she came out in that horrible red dress and laughed about herself, it seemed to be a changing of the image, which I think was a deliberate thing. And then from then on, things got better for her. 

NORVILLE:  And yet, Sheila Tate, she was very aware of her implied powers, I think you put it, as first lady, her ability to advise her husband and kind of be that barometer of the people around the president. 

TATE:  Yes. 

NORVILLE:  How did she do that?

TATE:  Well, I think it was just an innate ability to sense the agendas of various people around her husband.

And I‘ve always believed that any couple works out their roles together.  And I think in the course of their marriage, Ronald and Nancy Reagan worked out their roles, and he liked the way she protected him. 

I always tried to differentiate between people and policy, because I do think she paid a lot of attention to people.  I know she did not involve herself in day-to-day policy discussions, which I think is really where she drew the line between her role as the wife of a president and someone who was not elected to any office. 

NORVILLE:  And yet, Doris Goodwin, she was criticized for her perceived role in the certain key figures of Washington, not the least of which, Donald Regan, who got back at her when he wrote his memoirs and talked about the whole Joan Quigley thing. 

GOODWIN:  Exactly.  But there‘s no question that, given Ronald Reagan‘s style of leadership where he depended upon staff, setting the broad priorities and delegating to his staff, having the right people in the right place was critical.

And Nancy Reagan felt—I remember hearing that she said at one time, that sometimes he could be naive about people.  She was tougher in understanding who would really be the right people to have around.  So she was the one who made sure that Michael Deaver was there and Howard Baker and Jim Baker. 

And I gather, too—Sheila will know this better than I—but it‘s said that she is one that also eased out Al Haig, and wanted more moderate foreign policy people like George Shultz, and of course, was involved in the firing of Don Reagan. 

NORVILLE:  Sheila, you want to comment?

TATE:  No. 

NORVILLE:  Well, whoever buys history, but only so far. 

One thing that is interesting, the qualities that you‘re talk being about, Nancy Reagan being incredibly protective of her husband, being fiercely defensive when it came to Ronald Reagan, qualities for what she was criticized as first lady, are exactly the same for which she is being lauded as a caregiver for the president for the last 10 years. 

TATE:  Bingo.  Interesting, isn‘t it?  There‘s no difference between that and this Nancy Reagan, except the context. 

And I truly do think the world—the nation owes her a debt of gratitude for how she has cared for Ronald Reagan these last 10 years, and her total devotion. 

NORVILLE:  I want to take a short break.  When we come back, I want to talk more about Mrs. Reagan pentagon role in the more recent years, and also the role she‘s playing in trying to ensure Ronald Reagan‘s legacy is what she would like it to be in the future. 

Also, if you‘d like to know more about Ronald and Nancy Reagan‘s life together, you can just log on to our web page at Norville.MSNBC.com.  We‘ve got some things you‘ll find of interest there.

Back in a moment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

R. REAGAN:  We‘ve brought it down to five percent.  And we are holding it to seven percent. 

You were getting laughs. 

N. REAGAN (singing):  Happy birthday to you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Thousands of people continue to stream by the flag-draped casket of former President Ronald Reagan.

We‘re taking a special look tonight at Nancy Reagan.  I‘m joined again by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Mrs. Reagan‘s former White House press secretary, Sheila Tate.

Mrs. Goodwin, how will Nancy Reagan be judged in terms of comparisons with other first ladies?

GOODWIN:  Well, I think she‘ll be considered one of the most powerful first ladies, not so much for her independent political achievements like Eleanor Roosevelt, but for the impact that she had on her husband.

You know, most politicians have such a need for the vast approval of the thousands, the tens of thousands, that the love of one woman can‘t really fill that vast space.  But in this case, as we saw from those love letters, he depended on her as a personal tool of confidence.  And that has an amazing invisible impact on a person‘s presidency that will take a long time to sort out. 

NORVILLE:  And it‘s funny you mentioned that depending on her.  There was that one incident years ago when they were out in California and there was sort of impromptu situation, press event had happened.

And it became clear that there were some people who wondered if the president didn‘t lean on Nancy Reagan just a little bit too much.  Let‘s roll a little bit of that tape from this moment at the ranch out in California and just hear that snippet. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NANCY REAGAN, FIRST LADY:  Doing everything we can. 

RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Doing everything we can. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  The question was asked and the president faltered for a moment.  And the first lady supplied the answer. 

Sheila Tate, that was something that didn‘t go unremarked by the network news correspondents. 

SHEILA TATE, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY TO NANCY REAGAN: 

Hardly. 

NORVILLE:  Putting it mildly. 

(LAUGHTER)

TATE:  But you know, as you look back, it seemed like such a small thing at the time, now compared, to how big a deal it was at the time.  And it‘s really just a reflection of her wanting to help him when she saw that he was just searching for the right words. 

NORVILLE:  Do you think he was just searching for the right words, because, 20/20 hindsight, people look back and think, oh, maybe he was beginning to falter in terms of memory and the beginning stages of Alzheimer‘s? 

TATE:  No, I don‘t think that at all. 

I have experience with Alzheimer‘s, and when Alzheimer‘s hits, you know it.  It‘s not an occasional brain synapse. 

(CROSSTALK)

GOODWIN:  Which we all have. 

TATE:  Which, exactly, we all have.

NORVILLE:  Brownout disease. 

There was also—Mrs. Reagan came under a great deal of criticism when asked what should Americans do, what should kids do about the problem of drugs in their schools and so forth.  And she very simply and very succinctly said, just say no.  She came under fire for that. 

Unfairly, would you say, Doris Goodwin? 

GOODWIN:  Well, I think some people thought that it was too simplistic.  I remember one critic saying, it‘s like saying to a manic depressive, just be cheerful. 

But, on the other hand, she had a lot of faith in that program.  She kept at it.  She‘s kept at it all these years, and there was a piece of a prize in that program, even if it‘s much more complicated than just saying no. 

NORVILLE:  Which was? 

GOODWIN:  Well, I think when people have a drug problem, there may be all sorts of reasons why they have the drug problem that have to be attacked.  There may be structural problems.  There may be family problems.  There may be psychological things and health problems, so that just saying no is the answer in the end, but to get somebody to that answer may take more intervention than just saying no. 

NORVILLE:  Let‘s talk a little bit about Ronald Reagan‘s legacy and the role Nancy Reagan is playing in ensuring it is protected and should be what she wants it to be for the future.

She has been very, very selective, Sheila Tate, in what she has allowed the president‘s name to be attached to.  She said no, just said no, to the University of Ronald Reagan out in Colorado. 

TATE:  Yes, I read that.  I don‘t know any of the details of that. 

You know, on the issue of just say no, since it‘s something I know a great deal about, I just want to remind you, she was talking to children, and she was talking about how to avoid starting any use of drugs, as opposed to saying to a drug addict, just say no.  There was a very distinct difference.  She really was talking about young kids and what to do in the face of peer pressure, and I think she had pretty good advice. 

NORVILLE:  But she did turn down the Colorado university that wanted to use the president‘s name. 

TATE:  Right. 

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  She said, no, let‘s let the focus be on the Reagan Presidential Library. 

TATE:  Yes, she has always been devoted to the library and she has worked very, very hard to raise money, because she believes his legacy and the scholarship that can emanate from there is really valuable and ought to be the center of the Reagan story. 

NORVILLE:  And, Doris Kearns Goodwin, I understand that there was also discussion about Ronald Reagan‘s head replacing FDR on the United States dime.  Is this true? 

GOODWIN:  Well, I gather there‘s discussion.  The conservative love for Ronald Reagan is very powerful, and I think right now, there‘s a talk about maybe putting him on the $10 bill, putting him on the dime, replacing FDR.

But I think we would be well advised to just wait a little bit of time before we take the old icons off.  It takes time for history to evaluate the presidency.  There‘s no question that Reagan created a better feeling for the Americans while he was there, that he had something to do with the ending of the Cold War, but it takes decades.  Look, when Harry Truman went out of office, he had only 28 percent approval. 

And now he‘s considered one of the great presidents.  Lyndon Johnson went out under a terrible cloud, and yet his achievements in civil rights are now bringing him up.  So it will take time before we start changing around all these monuments, I think.

NORVILLE:  Which is why presidential historians like you will be able to continue to have things to talk about many years into the future. 

Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you so much for your insights tonight.  We appreciate you being with us.

GOODWIN:  You‘re very welcome. 

NORVILLE:  And, Sheila Tate, I know you are going to stick around for a little bit more.  We‘ll talk with you right after this.

TATE:  All right.  Thanks.

ANNOUNCER:  Up next, the disease that robbed Ronald and Nancy Reagan of their golden years. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

N. REAGAN:  Ronnie‘s long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  Nancy Reagan‘s crusade against Alzheimer‘s disease—when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Nancy Reagan stood beside her husband to the very end.  She also stood up in the fight against the disease that took him away—that story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

N. REAGAN:  Hello.  I‘m Nancy Reagan. 

Alzheimer‘s disease can change your life.  It changed mine.  Millions live with this illness every day, both victims and their families. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  That was Nancy Reagan back in 1995 doing a public service announcement for the Alzheimer‘s Association one year after former President Reagan first revealed that he was suffering from the disease. 

Mrs. Reagan‘s former White House press secretary, Sheila Tate, is back to talk more with—Mrs. Tate, I was reading where Nancy Reagan always thought that a fall that the president took back in 1989 where he banged his head might have had something to do with the onset of this disease.  Did she ever talk with you about that? 

TATE:  No, but I have read that, and I do think she wondered about that, whether it might have precipitated it or speeded it up or something. 

NORVILLE:  Yes.

How much did she discuss the disease in the early years when the president was first diagnosed with you about this? 

TATE:  She went into protective mode right away. 

I mean, she was very concerned about him.  And she worked with the doctors to design a schedule to keep him active and busy so that his mind could be stimulated, and he went to the office every day for years.  They kept him busy at work.  He signed letters.  I went in and visited him at the time of his 85th birthday. 

He was—I think she did a lot that helped extend his life and his mental capacities.  But she didn‘t talk—I mean, if people called and asked about him—Alzheimer‘s is a disease that doesn‘t get better, and so she basically would say, he is doing as well as you might expect. 

NORVILLE:  Yes. 

And they went into this disease obviously knowing what the long-term implications were, that beautiful letter that the president wrote in November 1984.  It talked specifically.  He says: “Unfortunately, as Alzheimer‘s disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden.  I wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.”

And then that beautiful line: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.  I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

But in that letter, he also talked about hoping that Mrs. Reagan would be able to face the challenges ahead with faith and courage and that the American people would be there. 

How important is it to her to see the steady stream of people pass the casket in Simi Valley, to see this outpouring that‘s overtaken America? 

TATE:  Oh, it‘s—it lifts you.  I know it lifts her.  That moment yesterday when she put her head down on the—it was so touching, but she was—she seemed so composed and determined to conduct herself as he wanted, as he would have wanted her to. 

NORVILLE:  And I wonder if that determination will extend to her new battle, which is to try to fight for stem cell research, which has shown some promise in the fight against Alzheimer‘s and related diseases, like Parkinson‘s. 

TATE:  Yes.

My honest view is that my knowledge of my years with Nancy Reagan, she focuses on the present when she has a challenge.  And right now she has a big, big challenge. 

NORVILLE:  She has got to get through this. 

TATE:  Getting through this week and this grief.  She has got—I mean, this man was the center of her universe for 52 years.  She has to get to that point where she realizes how lucky she was, and she can take joy in all those memories that she talked about not being able to share with him anymore.  And she has to work her way through that. 

And they always advise you, when someone dies, don‘t make big decisions right away.  And I hope she takes the time she needs to grieve.  And knowing her, she is not thinking about next week or next month.  She is thinking about right now. 

NORVILLE:  And knowing her as you do and knowing the incredible love between Nancy and Ronald Reagan, how will she fill that void in her heart?  While he has been gone emotionally for a number of years, the physical loss is huge.

TATE:  It is.  It‘s huge.  And I don‘t know.  I don‘t know.  It‘s—only time will ease that burden on her, I think.  It‘s really going to be very difficult. 

NORVILLE:  And, yet, as you said, to kind of come full circle back, as Mrs. Reagan was there laying her face on the casket, right behind her was her daughter Patty, from whom she had been estranged. 

TATE:  Right. 

NORVILLE:  They are now back together.  Her son Ron.  The family unit is intact in a way that for many years it wasn‘t.  And I‘m sure that‘s a blessing.

TATE:  It is.  It‘s a great strength to her. 

NORVILLE:  All right, Sheila Tate, thank you so much for spending so much of your time with us. 

TATE:  You‘re welcome. 

NORVILLE:  We do appreciate it. 

TATE:  You‘re welcome. 

NORVILLE:  When we come back, we are going to look at Nancy Reagan‘s fight against Alzheimer‘s, a fight that has put her at odds with the current administration.  More in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

N. REAGAN:  Science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers they have had for so long been beyond our grasp.  I just don‘t see how we can turn our backs on this.  There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped.  We have lost so much time already, and I just really can‘t bear to lose any more. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  That was Nancy Reagan speaking last month in Los Angeles. 

Joining me to talk about the former first lady‘s backing of stem cell research is Sheldon Goldberg.  He is the president and CEO of the Alzheimer‘s Association. 

And I guess I should say—full disclosure here—I have been active with the Alzheimer‘s Association since 1991.  My grandmother died of the disease.  And a few years ago, I invited Nancy Reagan to take part in a gala that raised quite a lot of money for Alzheimer‘s back in October of 1996.  And I guess that was the first time that she had publicly associated herself with the Alzheimer‘s Association. 

Mr. Goldberg, how important is it to have someone like Nancy Reagan on your team? 

SHELDON GOLDBERG, PRESIDENT & CEO, ALZHEIMER‘S ASSOCIATION:  Oh, it‘s extraordinarily important.  She has been a wonderful caregiver and a model for America. 

She has provided tremendous care to the president, but she‘s given us tremendous support as well.  I don‘t know if many people know that she gave us permission to create the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute.  And not only did she give us permission. She helped fund that effort.  And she has committed herself not only morally, but also economically, to help this organization.  She has been an extraordinary leader. 

NORVILLE:  We know that right now, about 4.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer‘s disease.  We also know, when you look at the track record, exponentially, they are predicting in very short order as many as 20 million Americans could have it.  What‘s on the horizon that looks promising that could keep those numbers from growing? 

GOLDBERG:  You know, what‘s interesting is that, up to about 15 years ago, we knew nothing about this disease.  And, at that point, we thought that this was normal aging.  We have learned a tremendous amount about this disease through the work of the National Institute of Aging and also through the Alzheimer‘s Association. 

We are at the point at this point that we think, in the next 10 years, with the proper level of funding, we can really make the discovery.  And perhaps this is the last generation which will suffer from this disease.  And so she has provided great impetus to that and great leadership to that effort.  One of her issues obviously is stem cell research.  That is one area of inquiry in terms of this disease.

But it also has tremendous impact about a whole host of other disease areas, which I am sure she is concerned with as well. 

NORVILLE:  It also is a political hot potato.  And a couple of years ago, President Bush spoke directly about that.  I want to listen to what the president had to say in 2001 and then get your reaction. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We recoil at the idea of growing human beings for spare body parts or creating life for our convenience.  And while we must devote enormous energy to conquering disease, it is equally important that we pay attention to the moral concerns raised by the new frontier of human embryo stem cell research.  Even the most noble ends do not justify any means. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  And the gist of stem cell research is, if you take the stem cells from a developing embryo, which cannot go on and sustain life after those cells are removed, those cells can then in the laboratory be harvested in such a way that they could be useful for certain neurological ailments, including Alzheimer‘s. 

Can you explain to us in layman‘s terms how this works? 

GOLDBERG:  Well, I am not a scientist and I‘m not a neurologist to do that. 

In essence, what it is, the scientists have discovered that this is a way of perhaps growing certain specific tissues for different specific areas of the body.  It has great implications for a number of disease states, such as diabetes, such as Parkinson‘s, and even potentially Alzheimer‘s disease.  By using this tissue, it has the potential of improving the quality of life of so many individuals who suffer from so many diseases. 

It is what I believe is—and Nancy Reagan—and certainly, I don‘t know this for a fact, but I think she is concerned with the health status of all people, and she sees this as an opportunity to really improve the health of so many people, people that are dear to her.  Obviously, she has been affected by Alzheimer‘s through what happened to her husband, the president.  But I think that‘s what her real focus is, is to make sure we can find, treat and cure these diseases. 

NORVILLE:  In a nutshell, the problem with Alzheimer‘s—this is a hugely simplistic way of putting it—is something happens in the nerve cells of the brain that creates a type of plaque that prevents basically the messages from getting here to there.  It stops the transmission of the messages.  Stem cell research could create new cells that would allow the messages to get through? 

GOLDBERG:  I guess that is the answer to this thing.

But what Alzheimer‘s is about, whether it‘s the plaque or the tangles that develop in the brain, it literally kills the cells of the brain.  It is a destruction of the brain tissue.  The theory behind stem cell research would probably be that it would allow us to grow new cells in which the transmission of the nerve energy could go forth. 

But Alzheimer‘s disease literally destroys the brain, destroys the tissue.  This would be an opportunity to regrow some of those tissues. 

NORVILLE:  We know that doesn‘t exist, but we wonder, those of us who have it in our families and those who worry that we might and not know it, is there anything we can do in the meantime to keep our brains sharp, to keep our brains alive, so that maybe we can stave off degenerative diseases like Alzheimer‘s for as long as possible? 

GOLDBERG:  Well, we are running a campaign called Maintain Your Brain. 

There‘s no guarantee here whatsoever.  But there are some real strong indications.  We know that things that are good for your heart are generally good for your brain, paying attention to your cholesterol level, paying attention to your blood pressure, paying attention to your sugar levels, if you happen to be a diabetic. 

And there‘s two other things that are really vitally important to the brain.  One is exercise, moderate exercise.  And the other is what all our mothers told us when we were young.  And that is to use your brain.  The more you stay involved in life, the better you do in terms of conquering this disease.  No guarantees, but strong indications. 

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  Well, that‘s good advice, then.

Sheldon Goldberg from the Alzheimer‘s Association, thank you very much for being with me tonight. 

GOLDBERG:  Thank you. 

NORVILLE:  When we come back, we will take a look at some of the final plans for remembering President Ronald Wilson Reagan. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Send us your ideas and comments to us at

NORVILLE@MSNBC.com.  You can find some of those comments posted on our Web page at NORVILLE.MSNBC.com.

That‘s our program for tonight.  I‘m Deborah Norville.  Thank you for watching. 

Tomorrow, a full day of coverage of the state funeral for President Reagan.  And we‘ll be broadcasting it all day to you here on MSNBC.  The procession begins at 6:00 Eastern time.  And the state funeral service begins at 7:00 Eastern.  And then the former president will lie in state for 24 hours inside the Rotunda at the U.S. Capitol Building.  Then, on Friday, at 11:30 Eastern time, there will be a national funeral service for President Reagan at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Later that day, his body will be flown back to California to the Ronald Reagan Library.  There, a private interment service will be held Friday night.  And MSNBC will cover it all for you.  That‘s our program for now. 

Coming up next, Joe Scarborough and “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”

Good night.

END   

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