Nancy Reagan’s death on March 6, 2016, was a breaking news event on American television. CNN’s trademark red-and-white chyron broke the news in a flat statement of the most significant facts: “Nancy Reagan dead at 94”. A solemn Wolf Blitzer declared it a “very sad moment for all of us, especially those who covered [her].” As they did upon the passing of other notable political figures, including President Ronald Reagan in 2004, major networks devoted entire programs to the reportage and, ultimately, commemoration of the event. Complete with somber theme music, lengthy archive footage, and talking-head interviews, these programs are produced ostensibly in the service of a process of collective mourning for a figure who came to represent an idyllic historical moment in American memory.
The first image used in CNN’s coverage serves as the final word for her cultural legacy. Depicting an aged Nancy, staring regally yet stone-faced in an unknown context, the photograph is reminiscent of the numerous images taken around the time of President Reagan’s death in 2004. In the last two decades of her life, the former First Lady was beatified in the media as a dedicated caretaker and advocate for her Alzheimer’s-stricken husband. Given that the celebrity obituary tends toward an assemblage of trace images that reinforce preexisting notions of a public identity, media coverage of Nancy’s death emphasized public memories of her role in her husband’s political legacy.
The process of memorializing Nancy Reagan took on new meaning within the contemporary sociopolitical climate of the United States. Coverage of her death and funeral was as much about Reagan herself as it was a commentary on current conservative politics in the United States. Much of the on-air discussion emphasized the generational shift from the nostalgic tones of the Reagan Era to the bitter, inflammatory language of the current Republican campaign. Even as the slogan, “make America great again,” recalls Reagan’s vision of a return to the wholesome values of the past, there are few perceivable through-lines between the conservative rhetoric of the 1980s and today, leading numerous media outlets to declare the death of the Reagan Era alongside Nancy’s passing. In this divisive climate of contemporary American politics, media eulogies of the former First Lady can ultimately be viewed as an act of nostalgia, in which the various images of her public life are channeled into a collective, idealized recollection of the much-storied Reagan Era.