Sweet: How Nancy Reagan recast her image at a Gridiron Show

SHARE Sweet: How Nancy Reagan recast her image at a Gridiron Show

First lady Nancy Reagan is at her husband’s side as he gives a thumbs-up to supporters in Los Angeles at a celebration of his re-election on Nov. 6, 1984. | AP file photo

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WASHINGTON — When former first lady Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, wanted to try to revamp her image in 1982, she turned to the annual Gridiron Club show.

Reagan, who graduated in 1939 from Chicago’s Latin School for Girls, would go on to say in her memoir that singing “Second-Hand Clothes” at the Gridiron — a takeoff of “Second-Hand Rose” — worked.

And so it was apt that the club of journalists paid tribute to her at the top of the 2016 show — a reprise Sunday of the skits performed at the white tie and gown affair of the night before.

Vice President Joe Biden and three potential 2016 vice presidential contenders were the Saturday headliners at the 131st dinner of the Gridiron Club and Foundation.

Those three are South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, speaking for Republicans, and the twin Texas Castro Brothers, Julian, the HUD secretary, and Joaquin, a U.S. House member, representing the Democrats.

Disclosure: I’m a member of the club and had some bit parts in the skits, where we lampoon and singe politicians through our musical parodies. I dressed up as a border guard and then, as a Texas cowgirl, was actually allowed this year to sing a few lines.


“As Ronald Reagan ended his first year in office, the grim reality was that his wife showed up in the polls as the most unpopular first lady since polling began,” the National Journal’s George Condon, the club historian, told the crowd as he recalled her surprise appearance in the 1982 Gridiron show.

“Her love of designer gowns, her solicitation of private funds to spruce up the White House and her purchase of an expensive set of White House china had not gone over well with a country struggling with high inflation and high gas prices,” Condon related.


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The Gridiron stage, however, presented her with an opportunity. As Condon said, “Her staff knew that the club would have a song poking fun at her and asked her if she was willing to sing a song of her own.”

Though it’s rare that the newsmakers who are the targets of the zingers perform on the Gridiron stage, Reagan wanted to go on and make fun of herself, which she did with new lyrics written to the tune of the famous Fanny Brice song.

Reagan popped out on stage from behind a rack of clothes dressed in a costume, not obviously recognizable at first.

She sang, “Even my new trench coat with fur collar Ronnie bought for ten cents on the dollar.”

She was a hit.

Said Condon, “The reviews were tremendous and her husband was thrilled. The tone of the stories was altered and she rose in the polls.”


Rising Republican star Haley, who delivered the GOP State of the Union response, is the second Indian-American governor in the country, and she took some shots at herself — and Trump.

Referring to her siblings, the daughter of Indian immigrants zinged, “Out of the four of us, only one works with computers. You tell me we haven’t assimilated.”

And this: “I won’t really feel like I made it until Donald Trump demands to see my birth certificate.”


The Castro brothers started their shtick wearing fake beards, pretending they were the other Castro brothers — Raul and Fidel.

Aiming at Sen. Ted Cruz R-Texas, who is disliked by his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Joaquin Castro said, “Why do people take such an immediate dislike to Ted Cruz?.”

Punched Julian, “Probably because it saves them time.”


Biden also addressed Cruz’s unpopularity.

“I told Barack if you really want to remake the Supreme Court, name Ted Cruz nominee. Before you know it, you’ll have eight more vacancies,” Biden said.

And alluding to the 2016 presidential run he decided not to make — for a job he still seems to want — Biden said, “Folks, if all else fails. . . . I’m here.”

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