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Nancy Reagan: Shrewd Adviser, Devoted Wife, Committed Advocate

The legacy of Nancy Reagan is being remembered as a big and complex force that lasted long beyond her — or her husband's — years in the White House.
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Shrewd adviser. Devoted wife. Committed advocate.

The legacy of Nancy Reagan, whose death at 94 was announced Sunday, is being remembered as a big and complex force that lasted long beyond her — or her husband's — eight years in the White House.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served as a national security adviser under Ronald Reagan, recalled how he began working with the administration in the tumultuous aftermath of the Iran-contra scandal.

"She was looking to us as the force that would stabilize the White House," Powell told MSNBC-TV. "She made sure that's what we were doing."

Because the president didn't like "to face people head on and say, 'You're out,'" Powell said, "she would act."

In Powell's telling, it was a task Nancy Reagan accomplished deftly and with grace.

"She didn't shout at anybody," Powell said. "But if there was a dissatisfaction anywhere in the White House, it was made known to us, and we fixed it."

Nancy Reagan also worked behind the scenes to drive some of the president's most consequential decisions, such as how he handled the United States' potentially explosive relationship with the Soviet Union.

"She encouraged him to make the deal," NBC News' Tom Brokaw told MSNBC. "Not just on their terms, but on our terms."

Brokaw added that the first lady became one of "the two or three most important" political advisers in the president's administration.

Powell recalled that when Nancy Reagan traveled to New York — where she was from and where she returned often — the president would get "fidgety" by the second day. "By the third day," he said, "we were calling to New York: 'Come home.' He was not really complete without Mrs. Reagan nearby."

Powell added: "They were inseparable, both in body and in spirit."

As first lady, Nancy Reagan supported numerous other causes, serving as honorary chairwoman of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., the National Republican Women's Club and the National Child Watch Campaign, to name a few.

Most well-known, however, was her anti-drug advocacy: Shortly after Ronald Reagan's first term began, in 1981, she announced the "Just Say No" campaign and launched a highly publicized effort to combat school-age drug and alcohol abuse.

Although the crusade has been criticized as draconian — helping lead to a zero-tolerance culture that put generations of non-violent drug addicts behind bars — the Reagan Foundation claims it as a success, arguing that it was responsible for a drop in cocaine use and a growing anti-drug awareness.

Shortly after she and her husband left the White House, Nancy Reagan — along with her husband — supported the Brady Bill, the landmark gun control measure named after the president's former press secretary who was shot and permanently disabled during an assassination attempt on the president in 1981.

But it was her medical research advocacy that would most define her post-White House life: After announcing that the former president was suffering from Alzheimer's disease in 1994, the couple launched the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute — an effort that expanded research, experimented with new treatments and ultimately aimed to cure the disease.

Photos: Nancy Reagan's Life From Hollywood to the White House

Among the most promising developments, Nancy Reagan discovered, was stem cell research. Despite opposition from anti-abortion Republicans, it was a pursuit she championed.

As Nancy Reagan wrote to President George W. Bush in April 2001, "Ronnie" — who was then 90 — was struggling in a world "unknown to me or the scientists who devote their lives to Alzheimer's research."

"Because of this I am determined to do what I can to save others from this pain and anguish," she wrote. "I'm writing, therefore, to ask your help in supporting what appears to be most promising path to a cure — stem cell research."

She added: "Mr. President, I have some personal experience regarding the many decisions you face each day. I do not want to add to that burden, but I'd be very grateful if you would take my thoughts and prayers into your consideration on this critical issue."

Nancy Reagan's advocacy earned her admirers who could hardly be described as soldiers of the Reagan Revolution.

"She made a lasting contribution to the fight against Alzheimer's," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, said in a statement Sunday. "She set an example as a first lady who truly stood on her own as a force."