On a slow news day, media greet Nancy Reagan's passing with a torrent of coverage

Abundant and predictably solicitous media coverage greeted the passing of Nancy Reagan on Sunday, as if a former president himself had died.

The early coverage was intense and duplicative as cable TV went into overdrive, quickly fetching anyone vaguely Reagan-related to opine as newspapers unloaded long-in-the-making obituaries of Reagan, 94.

The ledes of those eulogies were roughly similar but notable in at least one early exception.

The Los Angeles Times stressed how her "devotion to her husband made her a formidable behind-the-scenes player in his administrations and one of the most influential presidential wives in modern times," while The New York Times underscored a woman who "unabashedly put Ronald Reagan at the center of her life but who became a political figure in her own right."

But The Washington Post offered a a more vividly discordant note in an opening that cited her "undeniable knack for inviting controversy. There were her extravagant spending habits at a time of double-digit unemployment, a chaotic relationship with her children and stepchildren that could rival a soap-opera plot, and the jaw-dropping news that she had insisted the White House abide by an astrologer when planning the president's schedule."

That was perhaps a necessary antidote to the sympathetic, at times fawning, punditry that included observations from Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter who herself courted much controversy with her coverage of Saddam Hussein's ersatz nuclear program.

On Fox News, Miller declared that Nancy Reagan "restored badly needed glamour at the White House" following the Jimmy Carter years and the Iranian hostage crisis.

That was a debatable statement, given the many criticisms at the time of that "glamour." Along with other coverage, it downplayed the skepticism many possessed back then about Nancy Reagan, particularly elite Washington media. It tended to find her imperious, a force tending to cover her husband's many flaws and a bit wacky (most famously the predilection toward astrology).

"She brought Old Hollywood glamour to the White House — and defended it despite criticism," reminded USA TODAY. "She introduced the nation to her New Plutocrat pals, their social life and their spending. She helped make Oscar de la Renta a star and lit up rooms with her fire-engine red frocks."

CNN had quickly turned to first-string host Wolf Blitzer and observers who talked, somewhat repetitively, of Reagan's protective ways when it came to her husband. But there was also much discussion of her dealing with the personal pain of his deteriorating condition after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It was a private anguish that played out nationally and draws as much empathy now as it did then.

A medium dependent on video initially relied heavily on an older vehicle, the telephone, as it tracked down Reagan watchers and friends on a Sunday morning. Names that once dominated the Washington discussion during the Reagan era, but are now largely forgotten, such as consultant Ed Rollins, returned to action.

It was the same for some media icons, such as Sam Donaldson and NBC's mostly retired Tom Brokaw. The latter was put to action quickly on MSNBC, where weekend anchor Alex Witt did a fine job with the complexities of juggling on a breaking news story.

Brokaw has been beckoned for regular pundit duty during the presidential campaign, with mixed results (especially on "Morning Joe"). On Sunday he seemed a needed reservoir of Reagan-era history and proper context, especially as he recalled his own days as a Los Angeles reporter for NBC during Ronald Reagan's pre-White House tenure as governor.

He recalled how Nancy Reagan, though a Chicago native, was very much a product of a "higher-caste Los Angeles film society," a diplomatic way to reference her occasional snootiness.

Some of the best Nancy Reagan coverage was archival. In particular, C-SPAN reprised the Reagan installment of its superior series of profiles of First Ladies. In this case, PBS' Judy Woodruff and RealClearPolitics' Carl Cannon (whose dad, Lou, was perhaps the preeminent chronicler of Reagan's California years).

There were others who didn't seem quite as knowing as Brokaw, including CNN pundit Jeffrey Lord, who recently gained attention for a rancorous back-and-forth on the Ku Klux Klan with fellow CNN pundit Van Jones.

And conspicuous by his early absence was President Obama who, MSNBC's Kelly O'Donnell informed Witt, was out golfing. He would put out a good statement later.

But there were ample voices to rely on during the first few hours of coverage. They even included Kirsten Hultgreen, who spun some sympathetic if banal Nancy Reagan tales on Fox News.

And who is she? A former physical therapist for Nancy Reagan.

It was a slow news Sunday with an intriguing American personality to chronicle and a lot of time to fill.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.


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