Mother and Mommie


Two news items, seemingly about two quite different women in two quiet different worlds, had a strange vibration. One was the announcement a few days ago that Mother Teresa will be canonized in Rome in early September. Fast- tracked toward beatification by Pope John Paul II, who set a record for the number of sainthoods conferred during his papacy, the Macedonian-born nun is now embraced by Pope Francis, supposedly because her life is an eloquent example of selfless mercy, a quality that the current pope believes should be central to Christian life and spirituality.

The other event was another canonization of sorts. In this case that of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. More than 100 friends, family and former Presidents and First Ladies assembled at the Reagan Library, her husband’s grave site in Simi Valley, California. The scene was reminiscent of the funeral services for Ronnie, conducted on the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara and timed so that the ceremony ended as the sun set over the distant Pacific. Tributes testifying to her grace, good taste, and humor were given by her children. Politicians stressed how integral and influential she was to her husband’s political career. Hillary Clinton interrupted her primary campaign to attend and delivered her own note of appreciation. The wife of a much mythologized president was much mythologized.

Both of these canonization offer us more than a glimpse into the ways in which heroes and heroines are anointed by a culture. In both these cases, as in many other similar posthumous celebrations of exemplary human values, the facts of the life are carefully combed and the images burnished with a soft jeweler’s cloth.

Both Mother and Mommie, as Nancy’s  husband frequently referred to her in his diary, lived long lives. Both were frail, soft-spoken women whose delicacy belied their psychological strengths. Both were single-mindedly devoted to their chosen object of veneration, God and Ronnie respectively. Numerous pictures of the transfixed gaze of the idolatrous first lady convey a form of adoration usually found in the paintings of the Blessed Mother and other saints of the church. Both renounced one world to embrace another. Anjeze Bojaxhu left a bourgeoisie existence to join the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland and then founded The Sisters of Charity in her 38th year, after she had spent years ministering to the poor of Calcutta. Nancy Davis’s turn was not quite as dramatic – she apparently didn’t have a Saul on the Road to Tarsus moment as Teresa had – but she did decide to give up her career as an actress in order to assist her husband in many ways, including his political aspirations. Both were naturals: Teresa travelled the world raising money for her missions, garnering huge sums of money to continue the work. Nancy was quite at home in the White House, hosting state dinners, selecting china, and becoming a spokesperson for the campaigns against drug addiction, and, after her husband’s death, advocating for Alzheimer Disease research.

As we might expect, for every celebrant there is a detractor. In the aftermath of the announcement of the date for canonization, numerous columnists and cultural critic, even some within the church, argued that Teresa was unfit for canonization. They condemned her misappropriation of the money that she raised; relatively little was applied to the relief of the suffering of the poor. This scandal was due to her belief that poverty is a blessing that focuses the afflicted on God and the next world. At the time of her death Mother had more than 500 missions in 100 countries, including one in the South Bronx. The critics accused her of being a self-aggrandizing empire builder, a charlatan and huckster.

The most trenchant criticism came from British journalist Christopher Hitchens who lambasted the nun in a 1995 broadside called The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. The acerbic Hitchens accused her of lack of interest in female empowerment programs that might lead to an escape from poverty. Hitchens, who was brought in by the Vatican to provide evidence against beatification, learned, through personal conversation with Teresa before her death, that she was first and foremost interested in the Catholic conversion of Hindu and Muslim peoples.  For Hitchens this was another case of neo-colonialism: white people riding in to rescue the brown-skinned poor. He documented the generous gifts that she willingly received from a few tyrants, like the Duvaliers of Haiti, dictators who had a vested interested in keeping the poor of their countries poor.

Mommie’s critics also weighed in. Many had previously enumerated the miscalculations and misdeeds of her husband’s presidency and railed against the iconographers who used the sainted President to justify policy that the president had reservations about. Their absolutely certain answers to “What Would Reagan Do?” became the lodestar of many conservative tax-cutters, foreign interventionists, apologists for increases in the military budget, and opponents of gay marriage. The Reagan’s son Ron always bemoaned these misappropriations of the old man’s ideas and practices.

Perhaps no First Lady should be held guilty for her president-husband’s decision, but the evidence points in the direct of Nancy co-partnership. A number of White House insiders and biographers paint a picture of a highly protective wife, one who joined publicist-handler Mike Deaver in always offering favorable optics on the president. Coming from a movie background herself, Nancy knew how to stage a set. Some even suggest that the genial Reagan willingly yielded to the forceful guidance of his advisors and Nancy was one of the more powerful. Did Nancy approve or even orchestrate her husband’s embrace of the kind of dictators – like those in Guatemala and South Africa – among  whom Teresa did her fund raising?

One of the amusing side stories about mythologizing that came out of the Nancy Reagan funeral service involved the tribute by Hillary Clinton. She waxed about the former First Lady’s efforts on behalf of AIDS awareness and research. It didn’t take long for AIDS activists and historians of contemporary politics to ridicule Clinton for her gross misrepresentation of the truth and why she had done it. It’s commonly acknowledged that the Reagan administration remained maddeningly silent about AIDS, despite the fact that some of the Reagans’ Hollywood friends, like Rock Hudson, died from the disease. Only five years into the epidemic did Reagan mention the scourge. Hillary had to awkwardly “walk back” her words of praise. Not enough to derail her candidacy but it does reinforce the image of inauthenticity.

While Nancy was hardly silent about combating drug abuse, yet her “Just Say No!” approach has proven to be ineffective in the same way that sexual abstinence programs have. This sanitized attitude about human motivation and behavior indicated a woman out of touch with the real world. As did her regular consultation with an astrologist to help chart the course of her husband’s decision making, a practice that was revealed in the last years of Ronnie’s time in office.

I suppose it is healthy in this demythologizing age of scrutiny and skepticism to see that our female public figures — from Margaret Thatcher to Serena Williams — create such divisiveness. Wrapping oneself in the armor of symbolic motherhood is no protection against the arrows, as Madonna can well attest.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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