WASHINGTON — It seems hard to believe that Nancy Reagan, the former First Lady best known for her love of expensive clothes and elegant parties, could have played a central role in fashioning the policies of the Reagan Administration.
During her eight years in the White House, she showed little interest in policy. Unlike Rosalynn Carter, she did not attend Cabinet meetings. Unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, she showed no genuine grasp of the issues of the day. And she certainly never took charge of the government the way Edith Wilson did when her husband, Woodrow, fell ill. And yet Kitty Kelley, author of a scandalous new book entitled "Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography" (Simon and Schuster), insists that former President Ronald Reagan's doe-eyed wife was the most influential First Lady in American history.
"She was our President for eight years," Kelley, who also has written tell-all books about Frank Sinatra, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor, stated in a weekend interview. "If you ask me what's the best thing I can say about Mrs. Reagan, I'd say, 'She was a good President.' "
The much-ballyhooed book thus seriously challenges what long has been the conventional wisdom about Nancy Reagan's role at the White House. And in so doing, it adds to the already burgeoning historical record of President Reagan's many failures to fully take command of his own Administration and deals yet another blow to his place in history.
But Kelley's assessment of behind-the-scenes White House policy is only a thin veneer of seriousness spread over an acid portrait of the First Lady and her husband that emphasizes sex and sleaze. To be sure, many people are mostz likely to buy the book, which goes on sale today, to read Kelley's allegations about Mrs. Reagan's longterm affair with Sinatra or her assertions that Reagan had numerous sexual encounters with other women--including one woman's claim that she was date-raped in the early 1950s by the Hollywood actor.
Kelley's four-year project, based on more than 1,000 interviews with family members, former staff members and friends of the Reagans, also claims that:
* Despite her own desire for expensive clothes, Nancy Reagan was a cheapskate who routinely recycled gifts she received by giving them to others, sent bills for her hairdresser's air fare to the Republican National Committee and refused to pay taxes on the closets of clothes she solicited for herself from American designers.
* Mrs. Reagan has a vicious streak that Kelley believes is something akin to that of former President Richard M. Nixon, who maintained an "enemies list." As Kelley tells it, the first time that Nancy Reagan saw Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, criticizing the President on television, she snapped to an aide: "You get her."
* She frequently disparaged then-Vice President George Bush behind his back as weak and spineless, according to Kelley. The author says that the First Lady nicknamed Bush "Whiny" and often peddled to her friends a long-discredited rumor that Bush was having an affair with one of his aides.
* Mrs. Reagan's well-publicized campaign against drug abuse was "a fraud," according to one former White House aide, Shirley Watkins. Even though the First Lady used the issue to improve her image, she routinely spurned anyone who came to her seeking advice about dealing with drug abuse.
The Reagans have refused to comment on any of the allegations. Moreover, Sheila Tate, Mrs. Reagan's former press secretary, said she doubts that the Reagans or their friends would read the nearly 600-page book.
Kelley, 48, insists that President Reagan's former aides, as well as Mrs. Reagan herself, intentionally minimized the influence that the First Lady wielded in the White House.
Throughout Reagan's eight years in office, top White House aides insisted that the First Lady's influence was confined to personnel matters and to the scheduling of the President. In their memoirs, former Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and former Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver both complained that Mrs. Reagan plagued them with demands for schedule changes and insisted that they fire people who displeased her.
Kelley agrees that Mrs. Reagan controlled the schedule, but she portrays it as a device for controlling the President himself: For example, when Sen. Orrin K. Hatch (R-Utah) sought a meeting with Reagan in order to persuade him to grant a pardon to Oliver L. North, the key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, Mrs. Reagan nixed the idea simply by scratching Hatch's name from the President's schedule.
"I asked somebody, 'How does it work?' " Kelley recalled in the interview.