Andrew Schneider and Barbara Wilkins
February 23, 1976 12:00 PM

Two women stood on a snowbank in Henniker, N.H. and watched the handshaking, smiling Californians, the hovering Secret Service agents, the local welcomers and the milling newsmen and photographers in front of the white frame community building. “I can always tell the candidate’s wife,” said one onlooker. “They’re the only women who ever wear dresses up here in the winter.” And, sure enough, there was Nancy Reagan, immaculately chic in a green knit dress, gold chain necklace and high black boots, flashing her 500-watt smile and eagerly pressing the flesh as she made her way through the crowd of well-wishers at her husband’s side.

For Ronald Reagan, just turned 65, the former film actor and governor of California, it was his fourth foray into frosty New Hampshire. It is his hope that he will win the state’s primary election next week as a first step in his campaign to wrest the Republican presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford. For Nancy, 52, a very private woman who says “the movies were custard compared to politics,” the trip was an ordeal to be smilingly endured. But Nancy is a devoted and dutiful wife, as well as a shrewd political helpmeet, and her place was clearly beside her husband.

Inside the crowded hall, Nancy took her accustomed chair to the right of the candidate and listened raptly to a speech she had heard countless times before. Smiling frequently—as a marathon smiler Nancy ranks with Jackie Onassis and Mary Tyler Moore—she appeared to hang on every word. When Reagan began to field questions from the floor after the speech, Nancy’s expressions effectively italicized her husband’s (and her own) views: a tiny scowl and a disapproving shake of her head when he talked of welfare cheats, a broad smile and an approving nod when he pointed to America’s “outstanding medical care.” When she wasn’t gazing fixedly at Reagan, she studied the faces in the audience almost as if she were calculating the potential votes. “It breaks up the boredom,” she admitted afterward. “If it wasn’t for the differences in people, campaigning could become almost unbearable.”

After the speech the Reagans made their way through the crowd, grabbing outthrust hands as they proceeded to their two silver GMC buses outside. Nearby stood seven Secret Service cars. The former governor climbed aboard the lead bus with 40 of the 120 newsmen accompanying him, while Nancy and another 40 brought up the rear. Once aboard, Mrs. Reagan looked around for one of the box lunches furnished by the local Reagan organization, and was dismayed to find that the reporters had wolfed them all down. “I didn’t mind waiting to eat,” she murmured unhappily to Mrs. Catherine Gregg, wife of a former New Hampshire governor, “but it looks like you forgot about me.” In the nick of time, a TV cameraman appeared with a chicken sandwich. “Nancy is a hungry lady,” an aide explained. “She can’t miss a meal and she does her best not to.”

Through the New England snowscape, the motorcade crept on, halting at towns dotted with white frame houses. Each stop looked much like the last: Bow (pop. 1,114), Dunbarton (919), Hillsborough (2,933), Henniker (2,074), Goffstown (9,284) and Hopkinton (3,358). As they rode, Nancy pored over a road map, chatted amiably with reporters and checked her perfectly coiffed curls. At each town a small group of local supporters waited, and the campaign ritual was played out once again. Only once did Nancy seem at all miffed, when a Secret Service agent frisked a young man in carpenter’s overalls who stood in the Reagans’ path as they made their way through a Hopkinton crowd. Overhearing reporters discussing the incident later, she declared, “I’m damned glad they have the interest to do that!”

At sundown the campaigners headed back to Concord’s antiquated Highway Hotel, traditional headquarters for Republican primary hopefuls. But that was not the end of the day for the weary Nancy Reagan, who had arrived from California only the night before and was scraping by with a few hours’ sleep. Her hopes for a relaxing, 45-minute bath evaporated with the arrival of two reporters. She met them and then settled for a 10-minute soak before being whisked off to a cocktail party with local GOP bigwigs, followed by a three-hour dinner with 500 Reagan supporters. It was long after midnight before the last well-wisher had been eased out of the Reagans’ three-room suite.

The high visibility of a campaigning candidate’s wife is not Nancy Reagan’s cup of tea. When the Reagans are at home in their three-bedroom, all-electric house in Pacific Palisades, they draw a curtain around themselves. They entertain only close friends and may attend a small gathering, but their idea of a blissful evening is to dine simply on steak or macaroni and cheese, accompanied by a good Bordeaux or Burgundy. Later they might watch television together or read (Nancy’s current favorite: Allen Drury’s Promise of Joy) until their 10 p.m. bedtime. The children are rarely at home nowadays: daughter Patricia, 22, is off in pursuit of a musical career, and son Ronald, 17, is away at boarding school. Maureen, 35 (PEOPLE, Dec. 8, 1975), and Michael, 30, Ronald Reagan’s children from his previous marriage to Jane Wyman, visit occasionally.

Their goldfish-bowl existence when the children were growing up is Nancy’s bitterest memory of her husband’s eight years as governor of California. “It was very hard for me in the beginning. I never expected it,” she says. “I think the biggest thing you give up is privacy.”

Private though she may be, Nancy is keenly interested in politics and has definite views—sometimes to the right of her conservative husband—on a variety of public issues. The daughter of a conservative Chicago neurosurgeon, she opposes abortion laws: “I can’t get past the point where I realize that you’re taking a life.” She is all for equal rights for women, she says, but frowns on the Equal Rights Amendment: “We don’t believe that the ERA is the best way to attain that right. We feel that a constitutional change would open a Pandora’s box.”

Whatever her misgivings about a possible future role in the White House, the one-time actress—she graduated from Smith with a degree in drama—is a spirited trouper. The morning after her blitz through New Hampshire, she was up at dawn and already packed for the next leg of the trip. After a fast breakfast she and her husband of 23 years were off to Grenier Field in Manchester for a flight to Florida, where another grueling day of campaigning lay ahead. “I just go on day by day,” says Nancy Reagan. “It’s the only way I can do it. I just don’t think beyond, and I don’t think in terms of being First Lady. Nobody believes me, but I really don’t.”

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