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Nancy Settles a Few Scores : MY TURN: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan by Nancy Reagan with William Novak (Random House: $21.95; 370 pp.)

October 22, 1989|David Lauter | Lauter is a staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau

With each passing day, as Washington subsides ever more deeply into the workaday somnolence of the Bush Administration, it becomes more clear how unusual the Reagan years were.

Reagan's presidency began as a crusade that, for better or worse, changed the shape of American politics and the horizons of American government. Eight years later, it had become a national soap opera, with Ronald Reagan playing the role of the aged king, surrounded by sycophantic aides and scheming courtiers.

One by one, the players in that drama, seeking to prolong the run just a little further, have written books. Once more, each one struts by to play his or her chosen role: David Stockman (the idealist shocked by the realities of politics), Michael Deaver (the loyal retainer shunned by his former friends), Donald Regan (the hard-headed businessman stymied by his boss' wife). And now, for Nancy Reagan, it is "My Turn."

Early on in her husband's tenure, Reagan writes in the foreword to her book, "I came to realize that while Ronald Reagan was an extremely popular President, some people didn't like his wife much. Something about me, or the image people had of me, just seemed to rub people the wrong way."

"I don't think I was as bad," she writes "as I was depicted." And "although there is a certain dignity in silence, which I find appealing, I have decided that for me, for our children and for the historical record, I want to tell my side of the story."

The book she has produced, somewhat inaccurately subtitled "The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan" is a remarkable project. Never before has a First Lady written anything remotely like this. It is not truly a memoir. Despite an interesting, sometimes touching, chapter on her childhood, Reagan leaves aside most of her life. Even in the area she concentrates on--life in the White House--many events, such as the President's prostate surgery, go almost entirely without mention. Instead, what Reagan has presented is a series of replies to other people's books and articles--highly readable, but still a pastiche of comments on the controversies that dogged her over the years from astrology to Iran-contra.

As the foreword and title make clear, the exercise was intended, as are nearly all such books, as a form of exculpatory literature. What it becomes, instead, is a form of self-indictment. For 370 pages, as she says at the end, Reagan "lets Nancy be Nancy." The result is to reinforce virtually every aspect of the image she would like to shed.

This book may well make Nancy Reagan rich--it already has earned her more than $2 million and will almost certainly be popular among those who like this sort of thing. But it seems unlikely to make her loved. It is a relentless settling of scores.

Few can question the accuracy of Reagan's critical observations. Regan, the former chief of staff, whose faults receive an entire chapter, arrogantly thought he was a "deputy President," she writes. James A. Baker III, Regan's predecessor and now secretary of state, "leaked" constantly to favored reporters to enhance his image. "His main interest was Jim Baker." Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig was "power hungry" and frightening in his militarism. Former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III "embarrassed the Presidency."

But it remains a central mystery how someone who is so perceptive about the faults of those around her could be so blind to the aspects of her own personality--particularly the cattiness displayed throughout the book--that made her one of the most controversial First Ladies in history.

For it is not just the powerful former members of her husband's Cabinet and staff who receive the celebrated rough side of Nancy Reagan's tongue in this book. Her children, members of the press corps, former Hollywood stars, even her husband--virtually no one is spared. The list of people against whom she holds grudges is interminable: Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr. and Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, Barry Goldwater and Geraldine Ferraro, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Wyman.

Reporters who criticized her, she suggests, were often women who resented her slender figure and her decision to abandon her own career for the sake of her husband. Perhaps, she muses, Benjamin C. Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, took such interest in the Iran-contra scandal because he was jealous of her close friendship with Post publisher Katherine Graham.

But the most interesting--and probably most unintentional--criticism is levied at her husband, the former President. The "Ronnie" who emerges from these pages is a loving and romantic man but a terrible judge of character who repeatedly misjudged the faults of his aides, a detached executive who was "genuinely baffled" by the Iran-contra scandal, and a virtual child who must, at all times, be coddled by his protective wife.

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