In the late summer of 1980, a few months before her husband Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States, word came down that Nancy Reagan would be visiting a tough-love, New York City-based “therapeutic community” called Daytop Village.
Reagan, then 59, had made teenage drug addiction a central issue of her talks as she traveled around the country on behalf of her husband’s presidential candidacy. Her “Just Say ‘No’” mantra was much maligned in the news media of the day, as was she for her supposed domineering ways.
At the time, I was a lost and angry 17-year-old making his first real stab at becoming a sober and productive citizen – at Daytop. I had improbably landed there in June 1980 after several disastrous and drug-addled years in which I had broken the hearts and trust of anyone who loved me. To my saintly parents, this was a last-ditch effort.
Daytop was no Betty Ford clinic. Its facilities were run by – trust me – scary ex-cons and ex-heroin addicts, and its residents were, on balance, a rough crew, with a few overbred pansies like me sprinkled in for laughs. Reagan was politically brave to make Daytop a featured stop.
Seeking relevancy – or being just too stupid to know when to keep my mouth shut – I mentioned to a counselor that the Reagans were close friends with my mother’s family, and that my aunt Priscilla, a conservative magazine editor, had been a dorm mate of Nancy Reagan’s at Smith College.
This caused great excitement among the Daytop brass.
Eighteen hours later, with greasy shoulder-length hair and a tremulous voice, I found myself being pushed, quite literally, before Reagan and a ravenous New York media.
“Psst,” I was urged from behind. “Ask her a question!”
So I did.
“If you’re elected first lady,” I stupidly began, causing howls of laughter and much note taking by the reporters, who had to number at least 30.
Even Reagan, who had been tamping down stories that she would play an inappropriately outsized role in her husband’s administration, managed a smile.
When the news conference broke, she came directly over and wrapped her arms around me, tightly.
I can still remember how tiny she felt. The moment was captured in a New York Post photo spread, which I have saved somewhere.
It was only then that I whispered the family connection to her. I'll never forget what she last whispered back before heading back out to her car:
“You can do this, Billy. You can do this.”
She was right.
Rest in peace, Nancy Reagan.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who regularly writes for Newsday.