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Reagan Calls Reports of Wife's Role Despicable

March 05, 1987|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An angry President Reagan, on his 35th wedding anniversary, Wednesday branded as "despicable fiction" reports of his wife's aggressive role in his Administration.

Without referring to any particular account, the President said that Mrs. Reagan, who has been widely portrayed as a driving force behind recent White House personnel changes, was "obviously" upset by reports that she is involved in behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

"A lot of people ought to be ashamed of themselves," he said.

The relationship between the Reagans--each fiercely protective of the other's public image--has become a particularly sensitive issue since the release of the sharply critical assessment of Reagan's handling of the Iran- contra affair by the presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.).

The two have bridled at suggestions, fueled by the commission's report, that the President is not fully in control of the White House and at reports that Mrs. Reagan is now exerting a strong influence.

However, many of the news stories about Mrs. Reagan's role were based on information provided by her close associates. And most of the friends' accounts were leaked to make known her displeasure with former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and to prod him into giving up his post, in order to aid the Administration's recovery from the scandal.

In the Oval Office Wednesday, Reagan's lips tightened when reporters asked about Mrs. Reagan's role as the President and William H. Webster, his new nominee for CIA director, posed for photographers at the start of a private meeting.

"Not the (role) that has been bandied about in the press," the President said. "That is fiction, and I think it is despicable fiction.

"You touched a nerve here with that," he said to one reporter. "But the idea that she's involved in governmental decisions and so forth and all of this, and being a kind of a dragon lady--there is nothing to that. No one who knows her well would ever believe it."

In recent weeks, news stories based on information from Administration sources and people close to Mrs. Reagan have stressed her feud with Regan and her belief that new staff leadership was needed in the White House.

"Was she doing anything more than perhaps a lot of other people were doing in trying to get rid of Don Regan?" a former White House staff member close to Mrs. Reagan said.

On Sunday, Howard H. Baker Jr., Regan's successor, was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying of Mrs. Reagan: "When she gets her hackles up, she can be a dragon." Since then, Baker has toned down that characterization, saying Monday that she is a "lady of strong convictions."

The focus on Mrs. Reagan and reports of her active involvement in White House business have grown as the Administration has plunged deeper into the political morass posed by the Iran affair.

Reportedly convinced that Regan's presence was hampering the President's attempts to put the scandal behind him, Mrs. Reagan was said to have badgered Reagan so insistently to replace the chief of staff that he once finally exclaimed to her: "Get off my back!"

She has also clashed with senior White House officials over the President's schedule, seeing herself as the ultimate protector of his health as well as of his political image.

At the daily White House briefing for reporters, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater did his best to avoid the sticky issue of the President's wife.

"I don't think I want to comment on this," he said dryly, when asked about Baker's "dragon" comment.

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