The legacy of former first lady Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday, can’t be told without noting her participation in her husband’s war on drugs.
Ever heard the slogan “Just say no”?
Nancy Reagan said it first in 1986.
“Say yes to your life,” she said. “And when it comes to drugs and alcohol just say no.”
First came her Just Say No campaign. Then Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act that instituted zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol found on public school grounds.
Former first ladies have changed lives like that, in ways big and small. Here are a few other examples.
In 1933, Roosevelt became the first first lady to hold a news conference — and only female reporters were invited. The weekly meetings encouraged publishers to hire more women.
She wrote a newspaper column carried by several leading newspapers as she worked on issues ranging from human rights to the plight of American children.
What didn’t she busy herself with? She championed women, the poor and African-Americans. She compared American racism with fascism.
After her husband died she was a delegate to the United Nations, where she helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she considered her greatest achievement.
It is still, to this day, the most widely recognized statement of the rights all people should be granted.
Those beautiful old buildings still standing proudly in your town? You can probably thank Jackie Kennedy for many of them.
A large part of Kennedy’s legacy was planting the seeds to get the National Historic Preservation Act passed in 1966.
She got Americans excited about preservation by focusing their attention on restoring the most recognizable home in the country: the White House.
“The minute I knew that Jack was going to run for president, I knew that the White House would be one of my main projects if he won,” she told Life magazine.
In February 1962 she invited CBS into the White House for an hourlong tour of the restoration project. More than 55 million people watched.
White House curator James R. Ketchum said that Kennedy made Americans feel that “we could all share in America’s heritage.”
Lady Bird Johnson
Johnson was “green” long before it was cool.
Yes, she campaigned for and helped get the Beautification Act passed in 1965. Among other things it cleaned up the billboard clutter along interstates and made highways pretty.
But she didn’t like the term “beautification” because it trivialized serious issues she championed: clean water and air, safe waste disposal, ending urban decay and conserving the nation’s parks and wilderness areas.
She got the media’s attention by taking them to many places she visited, the California redwoods and Big Bend National park among them.
When Ford died in 2011, many stories about her legacy included this phrase: She helped save lives.
She spoke her mind about politically tricky subjects such as abortion and equal rights. At a time when it was still rare to do so publicly, she talked about her diagnosis of breast cancer and went on to promote awareness and research of the disease.
In 1978, after leaving the White House, she entered Long Beach Naval Hospital to be treated for alcohol and prescription painkiller abuse.
Four years later she opened the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., still one of the country’s best-known treatment centers. Over the years a parade of celebrities, from Lindsey Lohan to Steven Tyler, have been treated there.
Fleetwood Mac lead singer Stevie Nicks went to the center to be treated for cocaine addiction in 1985.
“As far as I’m concerned, Betty Ford saved my life,” Nicks told CNN when Ford died.
When her husband campaigned for the presidency, Carter promised that she would make the welfare of America’s mentally ill citizens a priority. She’s gone on to advocate for mental health issues for four decades.
As first lady she pushed to get the Mental Health Systems Act passed in 1980, providing grants to community health centers.
Today the nonprofit Carter Center’s Mental Health Program continues to promote mental health issues and champion legislation and public policy.
In her husband’s first year in office, she personally called lawmakers to ask for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, work honored six years ago when she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The response she got from many of them: Women belong in the kitchen.
Sure we remember the pearls she always wore around her neck. But Bush’s true legacy was an unflagging devotion to the cause of literacy inspired by the dyslexia of her son Neil.
She considered working for a more literate America “the most important issue we have.” She served on literacy committees, led reading organizations and took the media along when she read to students.
She helped champion the 1991 National Literacy Act, noted because it was the first piece of legislation ever enacted for literacy.
Although it failed to become law, the health care plan Clinton fought so strenuously for as first lady is seen as the groundwork for today’s Affordable Care Act.
Women and children, and their health issues, stayed a priority for her as she promoted nationwide immunization, encouraged older women to get mammograms and secured more research money for prostate cancer and childhood asthma.
She visited Africa, Southeast Asia, Thailand and other countries to call attention to the “customs” of genital mutilation, honor killings and wife beatings, which she called human rights crimes.
Just a few months after Bush became first lady terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. She spent weeks speaking in public about how parents could comfort their children in the traumatic aftermath.
As first lady she paid a lot of attention to America’s children and the people who teach them.
She addressed the Senate Education Committee to call for higher teacher salaries and improved training for Head Start and day care workers.
She brought education advocates and leaders of teachers’ unions and industry to the White House to talk about preparing “tomorrow’s teachers.”
During her husband’s second term, she became more involved in international humanitarian issues.
If your child is complaining about his school’s government-mandated healthier lunch, or has tried to get you to dance, you can blame or thank Obama.
Her Let’s Move initiative was created to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.
Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, also launched the Joining Forces initiative in 2011 to rally the nation around veterans, service members and their families.