The death on Sunday of former first lady Nancy Reagan was hardly shocking. She was, after all, 94 years old. Still, it is sobering to mark the passing of such a vibrant public figure who always faced life's myriad challenges with strength, toughness and grace.

Like most anyone in the political world, she had her admirers and her detractors. But make no mistake, Nancy Reagan was no ordinary first lady. She was far more than just a presidential sounding board and state-dinner hostess, as many before her had been. Instead, she was President Ronald Reagan's closest and most influential adviser.

By all accounts, inside the Reagan White House she was pragmatic and tough. In short, she had power and influence, and lots of it. What's more, she was a resolute defender of her husband and his policies.

Such stature and influence within the administration made the first lady a magnet for criticism while her husband was in office.

But Nancy Reagan was not cowed by criticism. She said what she thought and sometimes in the simplest and most unambiguous terms.

When, during an Oakland question-and-answer session, a schoolgirl asked what she should do if someone offered her drugs, the first lady famously said, "Just say no."

Direct and to the point.

Many criticized the response as unrealistic, simplistic and even childish. But those critics conveniently ignored -- as critics are wont to do -- the context of the remark. It was a direct response to a simple question from a child. Sometimes simple is better.


The phrase went viral before viral was viral and muscled its way into common parlance. It eventually morphed into the motto for an anti-drug campaign that the former first lady was later to say was one of her proudest achievements.

In fact, Ivy Cohen, the former head of the Just Say No Foundation, said Mrs. Reagan galvanized attention on the drug issue.

"Without Nancy Reagan," she said, "there would not have been the public climate to support drug abuse prevention."

But years after the Reagans left the White House, even Nancy Reagan's toughest critics admired her steadfast and exemplary caregiving for a former president who was dying an agonizingly slow death from Alzheimer' disease.

The evil disease finally took Ronald Reagan in 2004, but it clearly also took a huge toll on his beloved caregiver, Nancy, as it does on anyone who must care for a loved one with it. She said as much in interviews as she tried to describe the loneliness the disease brings.

But in that time, she became America's role model for love and caring. She is gone now, but we pray that her lessons of devotion will live on with us all.