A Tale of Two Wives: The Presidential Image According to Nancy Reagan & Jill Biden

To public figures, image is everything. From what you say to what you wear, everything about you is analyzed, criticized, and translated. The good, the bad, and the ugly become who you are to a public that doesn’t personally know you. So it’s strange, on so many levels, to see so many politicians ignoring this tenet of public life. Specifically, it’s hard not to compare the presidential images of two particular presidents: Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden. One has an almost evergreen image of dignity, self-respect, strength, and courage. The other has a flickering existence that is withering, weak, incoherent, inconsistent, and, at times, infantile. For one, we never saw an ounce of decline, for the other we are watching, in real time, a man’s life come to its conclusion.

Age and time are cruel; both have ravaged their fair share of presidents. The difference between the Reagan and Biden image, both affected unavoidably by age and time, varies because of one very important figure in each man’s life: his wife. The presidential image according to Nancy Reagan and Jill Biden is so starkly different. The tale of these two wives is defined by two things: their perception of what it means to be president, and their treatment of their husbands’ age-related decline.

Mentally Unfit

The end of Reagan’s life was marked by Alzheimer’s disease. The unforgiving disease eats away at who you are as a person and is one of the hardest things to witness happen to a loved one. But the presence of this disease was, largely, kept from the public. On the flipside, it’s not even a secret that Joe Biden is unwell. To the point where we all agree he would seem to a jury as nothing more than an “elderly man with poor memory.” It’s been admitted, and is regularly paraded in front of us, but no one is doing anything about it. Jill, specifically, has done nothing about it.

Reagan’s terms as President ended in 1989, but public awareness of him never went away. It usually doesn’t for presidents as they are a huge part of our history as a nation. So the difference here is that Nancy was handling a retired public figure while Jill is handling the current President who still has a few months to get through. 

But their handling of the issue—the mental health of their husbands—could not have been any different. Biden was 78-years-old when he took on the presidency. And though they were slighter at the time, the signs of his decline were already starting to show in gaffs, falls, and more. 

A Tale of Two Wives

The two women have vastly different approaches to the mental health of their husbands that seem to be informed by their vastly different opinions on what the Presidential image should be. Nancy, from the beginning, believed in absolute dignity. Almost to a fault. She helped her husband run a number of campaigns, had strong opinions on President Reagan’s PR team makeup, and is often credited with the changes in his staff when she believed they had failed to do their job. She knew exactly how she wanted her husband—the love of her life—to be viewed, she understood that the smallest falter could hurt him, and she was determined to build a lasting image befitting the noble office of United States President. 

When it came to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the two debated how public they wanted to be, ultimately deciding to release an official statement in the form of Ronald Reagan’s semi-famous letter. In his letter, which essentially acted as his final public address, Reagan states that he is sharing the information because “we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.”

AP PHOTO/MARK J. TERRILL Former President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan Nov. 22, 1994 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

After that, Reagan attended very few events, started a few charities, and privately celebrated many birthdays until his death in 2004. He largely kept out of the public eye, typically represented by Nancy at public events. Nancy easily could have forced him to show himself, to put up a front of being fine, but they chose not to, understanding not only what that would do to their family during this difficult time, but what it would do to Reagan’s image as president.

This retreat from public life allowed Reagan to handle his diagnosis and progressing disease in the privacy of his own home and in the comfort of his family. This approach allowed the president to age gracefully and with dignity, preserving his public image as a jovial, stalwart, intelligent, and persistent leader in the eyes of Americans. His presidency was not subject to decay in the way his body and mind were. 

And then there’s Jill Biden. It seems, at most times, that she is willing away the truth about her husband’s decline. Ignoring it because admitting its existence is contrary to her agenda. She seemingly cares more for her position in the White House than she does her sick husband’s wellbeing. Often the one to parade him around, covering for him, and supporting him as he struggles to walk, stay on topic, and follow instructions, Jill continues to support President Biden’s high-stress job, ignoring the toll it is taking and gaslighting the American people into believing everything is hunky-dory.

Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Tasos Katopodis

The evidence of our eyes, however, tells another story. And it is heartbreaking at times to see an elderly man pushed to his limit, and planted in the limelight only to be mocked for the symptoms of his mental decline. As a result, his presidency is doomed to the same decline as he is personally. The office slightly defiled by Jill’s unwillingness to do what is best for her husband. 

And sure, we can argue that he wasn’t as bad in 2020/2021. It would be messy to remove him from office in the middle of his term, and we would, God forbid, be stuck with Kamala. However, it makes you wonder about the efficacy of starting something so momentous as establishing a Presidential image at such an advanced age. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The point is, one wife closed the curtain, the other let it wide open. Nancy cleverly and strategically let that part of her husband’s life be a secret, even from him for a while, apparently. She knew what it meant to the American people to trust the capabilities of their leaders well after they sit at the helm. She knew we hated looking back at people we once trusted and saying, “Wow, that went sideways.” Jill, on the other hand, seems willfully blind to the impact of her actions on one of the most important political offices in the world. In fact, she doesn’t seem to value that office and what it means to Americans at all—only in how it benefits her. Her true intentions no longer matter, because the image is already established, the damage done.

The Presidential Image

I don’t think it’s a secret that the President of the United States is not the position it used to be. Once upon a time, dignity ruled all. No matter how controversial your decisions or actions in the Oval Office, your mission as President was to maintain dignity of personhood and country at all costs. Some did that better than others. But most at least tried.

And perhaps this is a broader discussion and issue. Maybe we should be discussing the age of our politicians in general. Or maybe term limits for everyone in political office are a must from here on out. 

No matter what, though, it is clear that our leaders are not the only ones suffering; the very seat of President is at risk of becoming nothing more than a hospital bed for men on life support. And I don’t think we need to tell you how horrific that image is to Americans or how wonderful it is to the people who wish to destroy us. 

The moral here is that strong women make the difference. Good wives matter to the survival of our nation—especially when they live in the White House.