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In Defense of Nancy Reagan : FOR THE RECORD From Wall Street to Washington by Donald T. Regan (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $21.95; 397 pp.)

May 15, 1988|Robert Scheer | Scheer is a Times staff writer. and

Donald T. Regan is a petty turncoat driven by personal pique, and Nancy Reagan, his nemesis, would have made a better President than her husband or any of his intimate advisers who have written books or been indicted. Such conclusions seem inescapable, though unintended from these scurrilous memoirs by the former Mr. Straight of the Reagan Administration.

What we have here are hundreds of pages of details about the disarray within the most powerful government in the world, which is all too conveniently blamed on Mrs. Reagan and her astrologer. If any of this is true, why are we learning it only now, only after Regan has made a lucrative deal with a commercial book publisher and Time magazine?

Yes, he offers a disingenuous disclaimer in the foreword that the 40th presidency is without secrets, everything of note having already been leaked, and that the astrology affair, a "closely guarded domestic secret," "did the country no irreparable damage." We are to be reassured in all this by his statement that Larry Speakes "provided wise counsel" to Regan during the writing of this book.

What pompous nonsense. The book begins on its first page with the astrology connection and dwells on it inordinately throughout. His charge that "this seer" had become a major factor in the "highest affairs of the nation" either was important and we should have all been told about it by Regan in a timely fashion, say before the last election, so that we could vote accordingly, or it is simply an effort to disparage Mrs. Reagan personally. Regan's vendetta is self-serving, avoids any serious examination of the problems of this Administration and is so mean-spirited toward the First Lady as to raise questions of elementary decency.

Nothing I have experienced in connection with the Reagan presidency has moved me to such a positive assessment of Nancy Reagan as the unctuous tone of her detractor. Read between the lines of this diatribe, and she emerges as a woman of remarkable good sense on various social issues, understandable loyalty to her husband, and good judgment of character. She certainly spotted Don Regan for what he is, though she clearly should have moved faster to ensure his departure.

Now, I know nothing about astrology. When people ask me my sign, I always assume that they are simply inept at small talk. But according to Regan, "Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes."

Was this a good or a bad thing? Regan judges this to have been a successful Administration, so perhaps what we have here is an inadvertent argument for astrology. But of course he intends a different message: that the country was pulled back from the brink of disaster at the hands of a disconnected President and his domineering wife by none other than our man Regan. There was no urgent requirement in Regan's mind to spill the beans earlier because he, Regan, was still safely in charge.

Integrity is parceled out in this book like stock options among insider traders, with back washing for the favorites and back stabbing for the opponents. White House Press spokesman Speakes was "in" with Regan, and so he gets integrity shares, while Mrs. Reagan gets shares of deception. Mrs. Reagan is described as a formidable manager of the media who told Speakes not to describe the President's illness in gloomy terms. But Regan told Speakes, "though he hardly needed such guidance," to be sure to discuss the case in detail with the doctors "so that he would be able to describe the President's condition fully and accurately with reporters." Speakes' recent confession of lying about high-level conversations between the heads of the superpowers makes a mockery of Regan's syrupy favoritism.

And of course George Bush, who might well be the next President, is recognized here for "his usual flawless tact and loyalty." Has Regan no shame employing such words approvingly after issuing this tactless and disloyal missive? Or is he just playing the political futures market?

Nor is his feint of praise toward the President convincing. There is a Charlie McCarthy quality to the Reagan pictured here "bright-eyed, apple-cheeked, shaved and combed," and making dumb jokes. " 'The Russians have dropped the bomb!' he cried jovially," when confronted by somber aides on a hospital visit. Not altogether reassuring. Particularly when we are told that "The 'football'--the briefcase containing the codes for use in case of nuclear attack--was not far away." But just when a reader might doubt the stability of the presidency, Regan certifies that the President does not dye his hair.

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