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Donald T. Regan, 84; Treasury Secretary, Reagan Chief of Staff

Obituaries

June 11, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

Donald T. Regan, who rose from an Irish working-class background to serve as a groundbreaking chairman and chief executive of Merrill Lynch and later as Treasury secretary and controversial chief of staff for President Reagan, died Tuesday. He was 84.

Regan, who had been battling cancer, died at a hospital in Williamsburg, Va. He was admitted to the hospital Sunday.

The target of First Lady Nancy Reagan's ire, he was a tenacious White House chief of staff who demanded loyalty, controlled the flow of information and likened his role to that of a prime minister. In a play on the "buck stops here" sign on President Truman's desk, Regan had one made for his desk that said, "The buck doesn't even pause here."

The blunt former Marine with a shock of white hair and a twinkle in his eye shed tears in 1987 when he was dismissed as chief of staff, according to former White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater's book, "Call the Briefing." Regan was forced from his post, a victim of the Iran-Contra scandal in which the Reagan administration traded arms with Iran to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon, with the proceeds going to anti-Marxist rebels in Nicaragua. He insisted that White House underlings had never consulted him before launching the scheme.

When a presidential panel headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) investigated the scandal, it tarred Regan for "the chaos that descended upon the White House." To which Regan replied, with characteristically tart tongue, "Does a bank president know whether a bank teller is fiddling around with the books? No."

Later he told the congressional committee investigating Iran-Contra: "I don't mind spears in the breast. It's knives in the back that concern me."

But Regan was also fired for running afoul of Nancy Reagan, who was said to believe that he let the president down and that his imperial management style was hurting her husband's image.

When the president underwent cancer surgery in July 1985, the first lady was reportedly furious that Regan had ordered a White House helicopter to rush him to Bethesda Naval Hospital. After an irate call from Mrs. Reagan, he changed his plans and drove the eight miles from the White House. When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher phoned the White House to wish the president well, according to the Times of London, it was Regan who took the call.

The extraordinary backstairs battle between the powerful chief of staff and the protective first lady consumed Washington, with frequent leaks of their clashes and much speculation about the ultimate victor. Regan's ouster was harsh: He learned that he had been replaced as chief of staff from another administration official who had seen the report on television.

Regan used his 1988 book, "For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington," to set a new "tell all" tone in White House memoirs -- and to try to have the last word. In a revelation that stirred derision, he revealed that Nancy Reagan frequently consulted with an astrologer (later identified as Joan Quigley of San Francisco) and that key events -- such as treaty signings and other public appearances by the president -- were rescheduled to accommodate the stars. He also said she had sought to dismiss CIA Director William Casey while he was recovering from brain surgery.

The former first lady issued a statement Tuesday in Los Angeles praising Regan's service to his country.

"I was very sad this morning when I heard of Don Regan's death. From the Marine Corps to Wall Street to the Treasury Department to the White House, Don served this country with great distinction. Our sympathy and prayers go to Ann and the entire Regan family."

Regan was famous for his pithy remarks.

On the eve of the second Reagan term, then-Treasury Secretary Regan suggested to Chief of Staff James A. Baker III that they swap jobs.

After the president gave his blessings to the unusual arrangement, Regan told Reagan in typically salty language that he would always give him honest advice. A multimillionaire, Regan said he had enough wealth to simply walk away if he wanted to.

On the eve of the first summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in Geneva in 1985, Regan created a flap when he said that women didn't care about arms control because they didn't understand throw weights. He tried to recover his public poise by adding that most men didn't understand the arcana of arms control policy either.

For all of his "take that hill" style, Regan was remembered by a cadre of loyal Treasury Department officials as a decisive, spirited leader, and by associates at Merrill Lynch as an innovative executive who took the giant brokerage house from an old-boy network of investment bankers to what the Financial Review called "a financial supermarket with interests in banking, insurance and real estate."

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