Byline: Claudia Kalb and Debra Rosenberg, With Anne Underwood, Tamara Lipper, Eleanor Clift, Karen Springen, Karen Breslau and Ken Shulman, Graphics by Josh Ulick
One spring afternoon in 2002, eight long years into her husband's descent into Alzheimer's, Nancy Reagan went to her friend Doug Wick's home in Los Angeles for a Hollywood-style tutorial on stem cells. Along with Wick and his wife, Lucy, both producers, the cast included moviemakers Jerry and Janet Zucker, actor Warren Beatty and Dr. Richard Klausner, now head of global health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Nancy Reagan already knew a bit about stem cells--a year earlier, she'd written a letter to President Bush asking him to support embryonic research--but she was eager to delve deeper. Together the group discussed the ethics, the politics and the science. "She asked a lot of questions about what [stem cells] were, where they came from," says Klausner. Nancy knew it was too late to rescue her husband, but she "had a higher purpose," says Wick. "She feels the greatest legacy her family could ever have is to spare other families from going through what they have."
After the meeting, Nancy began making her views known behind the scenes, respectfully but forcefully--calling politicians, conversing with scientists, buttonholing lawmakers at the rare Washington dinner she allowed herself. Then last month Reagan decided to go public at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation gala, and she asked others to join in her quest. "Science has presented us with a hope called stem-cell research, which may provide our scientists with answers that have so long been beyond our grasp," she said. "I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this--there are just so many diseases that can be cured, or at least helped. We have lost so much time already, and I just really can't bear to lose any more."
Nancy Reagan's bold challenge to her own Republican Party and to Bush's 2001 policy on embryonic research was a pivotal moment for stem-cell advocates. For months they had been rallying across the country; with Nancy's support, and now with her husband's death and heroic farewell, they have found fresh momentum. Last week in Washington, 58 senators, including John Kerry, sent a letter to the …