Nancy Reagan Was the Sara Netanyahu of the 1980s

Sara and Nancy had a lot in common: Reagan was vilified by her husband’s political opponents as Netanyahu is today - but will history exonerate Israel's 'first lady' too?

Former first lady Nancy Reagan / Sara Netanyahu
Reuters / GPO

If there is one person who can take comfort - and a dose of hope and inspiration - in the respectful and complimentary eulogies around the world for former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who passed away Sunday at the age of 94 - it’s the wife of the Israeli Prime Minister, Sara Netanyahu. 

As Sara Netanyahu listens to the admiring remembrances, she can perhaps be buoyed by the fact that time and history can be kind to the controversial wives of divisive politicians once they leave office.

Sara and Nancy had a lot in common. For those of us who came of age in 1980’s America, Nancy Reagan was as vilified by her husband’s political opponents - and some of his conservative allies - as Sara Netanyahu is today.

Like Sara, Nancy had a public image as a spendthrift who spent outsize sums of money on home decor, both on the Reagan’s private residences and in the White House while the citizens of her country were going through difficult economic times. Reagan’s $200,000 White House china - part of her facelift of the White House living quarters - was legendary, and her designer clothes and meticulous grooming drew heat as well.

Eran Wolkowski

Like Sara, Nancy’s public display of utter and complete loyalty to her powerful husband, bordering on worship and embodied in the way she would gaze adoringly at the man she called “Ronnie,” was ridiculed.

Like Sara, Nancy was considered to be a manipulative Lady Macbeth disguised as a submissive wife, with stories leaked by unnamed sources on how she smiled on certain aides and officials, shunned others, and wielded an unacceptable level of influence on her husband’s political dealings.

Like Sara, she was also viewed as being worrisomely unstable and a little nutty. Reagan’s case it was because of her rumored consultations with astrologers, and stories that she advised her husband to take or avoid political actions on certain days, depending on the alignment of the stars.

Both of them were accused of perhaps confusing electoral democracy with monarchy. Nancy Reagan was dubbed “Queen Nancy” because of her rich tastes and habits. “King Bibi and Queen Sara” were similarly slammed for their penchant for the good life. .

It is true that Nancy Reagan, though considered a tough and exacting manager of the White House, never angered household staff to the extent that it landed her in court, as is the case with Sara. But, on the other hand, Sara has never had to face what was probably a much more emotionally painful ordeal of being publicly labelled a bad mother to her children and stepchildren, badmouthed and estranged from some of them for periods of time.

And unlike Nancy Reagan, Sara has never attempted to be the face of a cause that was criticized, disparaged and laughed at as much as it was praised, like Reagan’s "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. And Sara never merited as extreme a nickname in the press as “Dragon Lady,” which Nancy Reagan endured.

That harsh image stayed with her, even through the traumatic assassination attempt on her husband. It softened only a bit as she battled breast cancer during Reagan’s second term, and was credited with raising awareness among women of the importance of mammograms.

In the years following his presidency, Nancy Reagan’s unfaltering devotion as a caretaker to her husband while he suffered from Alzheimers in seclusion, the touching and dignified demeanor she displayed at his funeral, her public campaigns as a spokesperson for fighting Alzheimers and her advocacy in favor of stem cell research, won her respect. Of course, it helps if that politician is remembered fondly and worshipfully by the members of his camp and by his political enemies when he is out of office. It also helps that her so-called “manipulation” was credited for playing a role in the president's greatest achievement: pushing him towards thawing the relationship with the Soviet Union.  

In Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement on the death of Nancy Reagan, he said, “I remember Nancy as a noble woman who supported President Reagan and stood by his side.” One might detect a subtext there - a hope that, someday history will remember his adoring and fiercely loyal wife in a similar way.

Will it happen? Obviously, the jury is out on whether Sara’s image could someday change and evolve in a positive direction once she and her husband leave the Prime Minister’s residence.

However, with her husband unhampered by term limits as Reagan was, focused like a laser on staying Israel’s Prime Minister for as long as possible, and facing no real challenges to his leadership on the horizon - presumably she probably won’t find out for a very long time.