News & Politics

Golden Girl

In a town where access is everything, Nancy Reynolds parlayed charm and connections into opening lots of doors.

Few people epitomize both old and new Washington as much as Nancy Clark Reynolds.

She came to town in 1935, the daughter of D. Worth Clark, a Democratic congressman and later senator from Idaho. Like many congressmen of his era, Clark never bought a house here. When Congress was in session, the Clarks—like the Gores and other congressional families—lived in a hotel.

Nancy was DC’s Eloise, and the Shoreham hotel employees became her babysitters and playmates. The hotel doorman took her to the circus.

“In those days, no one dared buy a house in Washington,” Reynolds remembers. “It would look like you were overconfident about being reelected.”

Life in Washington was less partisan and less formal. The Clarks had only one car. “My mother drove my father to work every morning,” Nancy says. Her father’s pals included Ohio senator Robert Taft and Georgia senator Richard Russell. President Harry Truman came over to play poker with her dad.

One afternoon Nancy drove her mother and grandmother to the White House to have tea with Bess Truman. She parked in the driveway by the front door of the White House and got comfortable in the car as she waited for the tea to end.

“I was lying down with my feet hanging out the car window when Margaret Truman walked by and said, ‘Nancy, what are you doing here?’ and invited me in,” Reynolds recalls. “I said no because I was wearing jeans.”

Seven presidents later, a better-dressed Reynolds would be back at the White House. This time she would be a Republican, a member of the President’s inner circle, and partner in DC’s first woman-owned lobbying firm.

This month, Reynolds will celebrate her 80th birthday—and a journey that has taken her from congressman’s daughter to TV reporter to Ronald Reagan confidante to Washington lobbyist and advocate for women.

Along the way she has built friendships and alliances on both sides of the political aisle. “I just fell into these things,” she says. “I didn’t know how to type. I had no skills.”

But Reynolds had a talent that in Washington mattered more than academic degrees. She made and nurtured scores of contacts, people who not only got to know her but came to like her. “She could get into any door,” former Reagan media strategist Michael Deaver says. “Everybody wanted to help Nancy.”

She was partisan, but not ideological, and knew the value of having friends on both sides of the aisle. She used her network to break into the male-dominated world of Washington lobbying.

Through it all, she never lost the charm and spirit of that girl with her feet dangling out of the car window in the White House driveway.

D. worth Clark served in Congress for ten years. He lost his bid for a second Senate term in 1944 but stayed in Washington to practice law. “Nobody goes back to Pocatello,” Reynolds says. She stayed at DC’s Immaculata Seminary through high school. Summers were spent in Idaho at the family ranch in the Salmon River Mountains.

The Washington that Nancy Clark knew had bridle paths instead of bike paths, and she was passionate about riding. She chose Goucher College outside of Baltimore because it was one of the few colleges that would let her bring her horse to school.

College was a brave new world for the sheltered graduate of Immaculata. As a freshman she met an “older man,” a writer named Jerry. On their first date, he offered to show her around New York City.

“He was tall, dark, and mysterious,” she recalls. He took her to Greenwich Village and plied her with questions about Idaho. He told her he was working on a story he called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

“Change the title,” Nancy told him.

She didn’t find out that Jerry was J.D. Salinger until her mother’s book club started reading Catcher in the Rye. A girl from Idaho later appeared in one of Salinger’s stories wearing a brown-and-yellow dress like Nancy’s.

Reynolds stayed on at Goucher after college, working for the dean. Then she met and married Bill Wurzberger. He and his father owned an architectural-millwork company in Baltimore.

She was a happy mother of three boys when a friend of her husband’s mentioned that WBAL-TV was looking for a hostess for its late-night “Million Dollar Movie.” On a dare, Reynolds auditioned for the job and got it.

Reynolds offered commentary at each commercial break and served as a panelist on a Baltimore version of What’s My Line? She also interviewed visiting celebrities for WBAL radio.

The Wurzbergers divorced in 1961, and Nancy moved back to Idaho with her boys. Reynolds’s mother had a friend who owned a TV station in Boise, and she offered Nancy a job as a daytime talk-show host. That led to being the anchor of the noon news on San Francisco’s WPIX-TV. Reynolds did so well that she became the station’s first female coanchor of the evening news.

This was the 1960s, and TV anchors were also reporters. Reynolds covered politics at a time when being a female TV reporter relegated her to the back of the room at press conferences. But she found ways to get noticed. She interviewed gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan on horseback on his ranch.

Another clever move took place a few years later. Reynolds had married Frank Reynolds, who worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee, in 1965. She was pregnant with her fourth son when President Lyndon Johnson came to town. Johnson aide Jack Valenti was keeping reporters at bay when he spotted Reynolds. The two had dated years earlier; they met at a Democratic convention in Texas when Reynolds was a TV reporter and Valenti was a political columnist for the Houston Post.

Soon after Johnson arrived, Reynolds had a convenient dizzy spell. Valenti ushered her to a chair near Johnson, and the President’s personal physician gave her smelling salts. Then she got one of the few interviews with President Johnson.

In 1966, Frank Reynolds took a job in Sacramento, and Nancy got ready to move from San Francisco. She applied for a TV job in Sacramento and was waiting to hear back when a friend of her husband’s, Lyn Nofziger, offered her a job working for newly elected governor Ronald Reagan.

Reynolds had gotten to know the Reagans when she covered the gubernatorial campaign for San Francisco TV. Nofziger said Reynolds would be assistant press secretary, but she could deal only with television and radio reporters. Newspapers were thought to be too important to be entrusted to a woman.

Reynolds had no problem fitting into Republican circles. She had switched parties in 1964 after interviewing Senator Barry Goldwater: “I admired him,” she says. Her Democratic family took it in stride. She wasn’t the only renegade; an uncle was the Republican governor of Idaho at the time.

Reynolds stayed with Governor Reagan for ten years, as assistant press secretary and then as his special assistant. As the only woman on the senior staff, she became Nancy Reagan’s traveling companion. The Reagans never traveled on the same plane until he was president. They wanted to be certain that if one plane crashed, the other parent would be there for the children.

“She was very private, very shy, but anything he wanted, she would do,” Reynolds says.

Part of Reynolds’s job was the care and feeding of visiting celebrities. One day she was sent to pick up writer Truman Capote at the Sacramento airport and bring him to the State House. She arrived in her old Ford Pinto to find the author standing in a white suit on the tarmac demanding, “My bags, where are my bags?”

When the bags were finally brought out, Capote stood by while Reynolds hefted them into her Pinto. “He was very nice once he got to the governor’s office,” Reynolds says. The author of In Cold Blood only wanted to go to San Quentin.

Reynolds also arranged the California homecoming of Vietnam prisoners of war. It was especially meaningful for her as she had worn a bracelet for one of the POWs for years. His name was John McCain.

Reagan left the California State House in 1975 and began running for the Republican nomination for the White House. Reynolds, speechwriter Peter Hannaford, Michael Deaver, and Reagan secretary Helene Von Damm moved with him to Santa Monica to work on the campaign.

“We traveled a lot with the Reagans in the ’70s,” Deaver recalls. “Nancy was always the last one to get back to the motorcade.”

Once in Hong Kong, they took off without her only to see her hobbling up the street barefoot, carrying a big wicker basket shaped like a cat. Reynold remembers that she was running toward the motorcade, arms filled with gifts for her family, when a pair of silk pajamas flew up in her face and she slammed into a bus that was stopped for a red light. She was knocked out for a few seconds, then started running again.

“Mike was very unhappy with me, but sweet guy that he is, he opened the door of the last car in the motorcade as I ran alongside, legs bleeding, and he pulled me and my packages into the back seat,”she recalls.

Years later, on a trip to the Philippines as US representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, she called Anne Wexler, her business partner in Washington, asking her to bring a truck to Andrews Air Force Base. Reynolds had brought back two Thai spirit houses—teak structures to be erected outside a house to protect the occupants—one for the Deavers, one for the Reagans. “The Reagans had it in their yard in Pacific Palisades,” Deaver says. “It may still be there.”

Reagan electrified audiences in 1976, but the Republican nomination went to President Gerald Ford. Reynolds, now divorced, went back to Idaho, unsure of what to do next. Friends at Boise Cascade suggested that she move back to Washington to lobby for the lumber-and-paper company. Reynolds protested that she wasn’t a lobbyist. But the company was persuasive. “You know Idaho, and you know our company,” the friends told her.

In 1977, after two years representing Boise Cascade, the young president of Bendix, fellow Idahoan Bill Agee, asked Reynolds to open a Washington office for his military-equipment conglomerate. She agreed and within a year was elected president of the Business Government Relations Council, becoming the first woman to head the group of Washington lobbyists.

Then Ronald Reagan called to say he again was running for president.

Reynolds was stunned. “I didn’t say ‘Gee, you’re so old,’ but I thought they were finished with politics,” she says. When the 69-year-old Reagan was elected in 1980, Reynolds took a six-month leave of absence to help with the transition. She moved into Blair House with the President-elect and First Lady in waiting.

“I was the only one in Washington who knew the Reagans and everybody in the Reagan camp,” she says. Although she returned to Bendix, she was in and out of the White House all the time, Deaver recalls. “She was smart. She knew everybody. She could talk to anybody,” he says. “In tense situations, I’d throw her into a room, and she’d get them all laughing.”

Reynolds’s knowledge of Washington made her an asset to the Reagans. Perhaps even more important, her close friendship with the Reagans made her extremely valuable to old Washington hands who had to work with the Californians.

The White House staff often consulted her. Frank Carlucci was Reagan’s national-security adviser in 1987, but some of his best intelligence came from Reynolds. “She was Nancy Reagan’s best friend. She would give me early warnings, particularly concerning the relationship between Nancy Reagan and Don Regan,” Carlucci told interviewers for the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project. Ultimately, Carlucci was the one to tell Regan that he was being replaced as White House chief of staff by Howard Baker.

Reynolds offered the Reagans an escape from the formality of the White House. During the filming of the movie Broadcast News in Washington, Reynolds invited actors William Hurt, Holly Hunter, and Albert Brooks and writer/director James Brooks to have dinner at her house with the Reagans. During the dinner, Albert Brooks lost a contact lens. The President found it on the floor.

Bill Agee was instrumental in the collaboration of Wexler and Reynolds. The women had met the day Reagan was inaugurated. Anne Wexler, an assistant to President Carter, and press secretary Jody Powell greeted Reynolds and Deaver at the White House. “It’s a sad day for me, but it’s a great day for you, so let me congratulate you,” Wexler said.

When Bendix chief Agee needed help in his attempt to acquire Martin Marietta Corporation, Reynolds suggested retaining Wexler, who had started a lobbying firm after leaving the White House.

In 1982, Reynolds and Wexler were on a plane together to a Bendix board meeting when Wexler raised the idea of working together. “I’m a Democrat; you’re a Republican. We could join forces. It’s never been done,” Wexler told Reynolds.

When they arrived in Michigan and got into a cab, Reynolds said she’d think it over. She called ten minutes later and said, “I accept.”

The timing was ideal. There were reports, denied by Reynolds, that she was uncomfortable with Agee’s romance with a young Bendix employee, Mary Cunningham. Reynolds had urged Cunningham to be more discreet. Cunningham left the company and married Agee, but relations between Reynolds and the couple remained strained.

Wexler and Reynolds opened Wexler, Reynolds, Harrison & Schule in 1983, joining forces with Robert Schule, a former Carter aide, and Gail Harrison, who had been Vice President Walter Mondale’s chief domestic-policy adviser.

Their first client was Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America. The television industry wanted to change syndication rules for movies. It was a hot issue—a lot of money was at stake. The television industry had hired a cadre of top Washington lobbyists.

Michael Berman had worked with Anne Wexler in the Carter White House before becoming a lobbyist for the broadcasters. He and his colleagues were so certain that Congress would side with their clients that they laughed at the two women. “If you win, I’ll buy you both a day at Elizabeth Arden,” Berman told Wexler and Reynolds.

Reynolds had a secret weapon. “You’ve got to remember that Ronald Reagan comes from the movie industry,” Reynolds told Wexler. Reynolds invited the Reagans to dinner at her house in Arlington. Before you could say “must-see TV, ” Attorney General Ed Meese was on Capitol Hill supporting the MPAA’s case.

When the movie industry won, Mike Berman delivered the gift certificates to Wexler and Reynolds.

“We tunneled up when no one was paying attention,” Reynolds recalls. “We beat their socks off.”

“It was wonderful to be underestimated,” Wexler says.

Before long, companies like General Motors and American Airlines were knocking on their door.

At the same time, President Reagan introduced Reynolds to Jeane Kirkpatrick at a White House lunch. Kirkpatrick had just been named US ambassador to the United Nations, and Reagan wanted Reynolds to help her there. Reagan said the assignment would only take a day or two. But Reynolds’s task turned into a four-year part-time job as US representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women—and a new passion for Reynolds.

Kirkpatrick took Reynolds to Africa for a meeting, and Reynolds fell in love with “the extraordinary beauty of Africa, its people, its cultures, its animals, and its birds.” She put together the US delegation to the 1985 UN conference on women in Nairobi and has made more than 80 trips to Africa since. On many of these trips, she has spent time with paleontologist and environmentalist Richard Leakey and his family and indulged a passion for the study of the evolution of humankind.

Hill & Knowlton bought Wexler Reynolds in 1990. Two years later, Reynolds “retired” to Sante Fe. She joined corporate boards—including those of Sears, Allstate, and Viacom—often as the only woman in the room. Mastering the inner workings of the boards was like “going back to college,” Reynolds says.

When Reynolds comes to Washington now, it is as a mother and grandmother. Two of her four sons live in the area. Kurt Wurzberger, 51, is a security specialist with the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. He and his wife, Linda, live in University Park in Maryland. Michael Reynolds, 45, is the deputy assistant secretary of aviation and international affairs in the US Department of Transportation. He and his wife, Rose, and their two sons, Ethan and Colin, live in Annandale.

But anyone who thinks that Nancy Reynolds has taken to her rocking chair would be mistaken. A back injury ended her days on horseback, but she works out for two hours a day, and from the tips of her spiky silver hair to the tips of her fast-moving feet, she radiates energy.

It comes as no surprise to anyone who knows her that Reynolds is an investor in a nightclub in Casablanca called Rick’s Café. In fact, that’s where she’ll be, with some of the old Reagan gang, to celebrate her 80th birthday this month.