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A Backstairs Battle : Mrs. Reagan Helped Seal Regan's Fate

February 28, 1987|DOYLE McMANUS | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Late last year, as the stain of the Iran- contra scandal was beginning to spread across the Reagan Administration, a senior White House aide plucked up his courage and went to tell Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan that he could best serve the President by leaving his job.

"Don, I think you should consider resigning," political aide Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. reportedly said.

According to other officials, an enraged Regan shot back: "You f------ resign!"

In the end, both men quit. But Regan, the most powerful White House chief of staff in decades, left only after a bitter three-month-long struggle to hang onto his job--and only after an extraordinary backstairs battle with First Lady Nancy Reagan, who insisted that he had to go.

Odd and Graceless

The odd and graceless exit of Donald T. Regan was a product of some of the same factors that also produced the Iran-contra scandal: the tenacity of the chief of staff, who reveled in the exercise of power and refused to give it up; the personality of President Reagan, who has long shied away from the distasteful task of firing errant aides; and a White House structure that left no one else to deliver the message when the President decided that Regan should leave.

In a written statement, President Reagan said Friday that Regan had actually asked to return to private life "many months ago." That came as news to most Administration officials. The President's statement said Regan changed his mind and decided to stay to aid the Administration after the secret arms deals with Iran were discovered.

From the first days of the scandal last November, powerful Republicans in Congress and old friends of the President called on Regan to resign, as the man who had led the White House as it entered the Iranian morass.

Resistance Hardened

But with every call for his head, the chief of staff seemed to harden his resistance.

"Embattled? Not I," he briskly told reporters in November.

At first, officials said, Regan expressed a breezy confidence that the scandal would blow over quickly. He had always considered the President's popularity, as measured by polls, to be the best measure of how he was doing his job--and initially, at least, the President's rating held up.

But Regan's confidence got him into trouble. When he explained in an interview that the Iran scandal would be as easy to gloss over as the Administration's confusion at the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the earlier controversy over a "disinformation" campaign aimed at Libya, Regan shot himself squarely in the foot.

'Like a Shovel Brigade'

"Some of us are like a shovel brigade that follow a parade down Main Street, cleaning up," he told the New York Times. "We took Reykjavik and turned what was really a sour situation into something that turned out pretty well. Who was it that took this disinformation thing and managed to turn it? Who was it that took on the loss of the Senate (in the November elections) and pointed out a few facts and managed to pull it out?"

Other officials--and, significantly, Mrs. Reagan--did not appreciate the comparison. But Regan dug in his heels, officials said, and took every suggestion that he should quit as a challenge to his ability to hang on.

He had long relished his place at the vortex of political power, although his experience had been solely in the world of Wall Street, not politics. Regan forced everyone who wanted to see the President to go through him, including even National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and former Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), Reagan's closest confidant.

His Control of Policy

Nevertheless, the chief of staff who once made a point of his control over foreign policy insisted that he had known nothing about the use of Iranian arms money to fund the Nicaraguan rebels.

"Does a bank president know whether a bank teller is fiddling around with the books? No," Regan said.

Over the months, however, the scandal began to take a toll. Regan was not directly implicated in the diversion of funds to the contras, but some aides insisted that he knew about it--and others charged that he had presided over an attempt to cover up the dimension of the scandal.

Newspaper stories began to focus on Regan himself, and Republican leaders renewed their pleas that he resign, but President Reagan appeared untroubled.

Erring Subordinates

Since his days as California's governor, Reagan has always found it difficult to fire erring subordinates. Instead, he has often attempted to hint indirectly that the aide might consider leaving, and relied on other aides to deliver the message.

Even when Poindexter and his freebooting assistant, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, were sacked, Reagan himself insisted that Poindexter had left of his own free will.

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