Presidency Managed by Cabal, Regan Writes : He Says Reagan’s Every Move Was Programmed by Aides and First Lady to Preserve His Image
The Reagan presidency has been a stage-managed spectacle with every word and footstep choreographed, designed to protect the President from himself and to cement the power of a cabal of close aides and Nancy Reagan, according to the recently published account of former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan.
His picture of the Reagan White House is more devastating than the most vivid speculation of the President’s fiercest political foes.
President Reagan essentially was programmed by his staff to run through his daily schedule of events as a movie actor runs through a shooting schedule. He had little time or inclination to make critical policy decisions, Regan charges in his book, “For the Record,” published this week.
Series of Embarrassments
The result was a steady string of embarrassments caused by incompetent or overzealous aides acting with the President’s implied authority, culminating in the disastrous Iran-Contra affair, Regan contends.
Regan says that the book is based on extensive notes of his years in the Administration, starting with his first-term tenure as secretary of the Treasury and carrying through his two years as White House chief of staff from February, 1985, to February, 1987.
Because he had virtually no one-on-one dealings with Reagan during the President’s first term, Regan leans heavily in his book on his crisis-filled two years at the White House, which ended with his firing in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair.
Regan’s bitterness and vindictiveness about his dismissal, which he blames almost entirely on Nancy Reagan, color all of his comments in the book.
Regan says that every White House public event was driven by concern about how it would play in the newspapers and on television, with the White House staff directing presidential appearances “with theatrical effect as the primary objective.
“This fascination with image produced a strange effect,” Regan writes. “Ronald Reagan seemed to be regarded by certain members of his inner circle not as the powerful and utterly original leader that he was, but as a sort of supreme anchorman whose public persona was the most important element of the presidency.”
The Reagan that emerges from his former staff chief’s account is affable, approachable, easily swayed by personal appeals and almost totally uninvolved in policy. His life, and the fate of the nation, were in the hands of his wife, her astrologer and the Reagans’ longtime friend and media-manipulator, Michael K. Deaver, Regan says.
“Every moment of every public appearance was scheduled, every word was scripted, every place where Reagan was expected to stand was chalked with toe marks. The President was always being prepared for a performance and this had the inevitable effect of preserving him from confrontation and the genuine interplay of opinion, question and argument that form the basis of decision,” Regan writes.
Later in the book, Regan says of the President: “Never did he issue a direct order. . . . He listened, acquiesced, played his role and waited for the next act to be written.”
As an example of Reagan’s “surprising” passivity, Regan recounts that soon after assuming his duties as chief of staff in early 1985, he presented to the President a detailed two-year plan for the start of the Administration’s second term. Reagan skimmed it, offered no change or criticism and said: “It’s good. It’s really good, Don.”
“I waited for him to say more. He did not. He had no questions to ask, no objections to raise, no instructions to issue. I realized that the policy that would determine the course of the world’s most powerful nation for the next two years and deeply influence the fate of the Republican Party in the 1986 midterm elections had been adopted without amendment,” Regan writes.
Reagan’s lack of interest in managing his office and the unquestioned trust he placed in his subordinates led directly to the Iran-Contra debacle, Regan contends.
“The degree of trust involved in this method of leadership must be unprecedented in modern American history. Sometimes--as was inevitable given that many of his closest aides, including almost all of the Cabinet, were virtual strangers to him--this trust was betrayed in shocking fashion,” Regan says.
Much of Regan’s book is devoted to describing the acrimonious relations between the chief of staff and the First Lady, who took upon herself the job of jettisoning Administration aides she believed were hurting “Ronnie.”
“Her husband was all but incapable of firing a subordinate, and I suppose that she had become used to supplying the missing determination,” Regan writes. “Her purpose was to protect the President from embarrassment and to insulate him from associates who might tarnish his reputation.”
Regan recounts Mrs. Reagan’s determination to fire Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan when he was under investigation on corruption charges and her desire to compel the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler, whom Mrs. Reagan considered too accommodating to Congress and potentially embarrassing because she was in the midst of divorce proceedings.
“We’ve got to get rid of her,” Regan says the First Lady told him. “You know Ronnie will never fire her--he can’t even talk to a woman in a stern voice. She’ll just twist him around her little finger.”
Heckler eventually was eased out with an offer of the ambassadorship to Ireland.
Of Reagan’s weakness in his dealings with women, Regan says that while the President is “truly uxorious"--doting, perhaps excessively so, on his wife--"he tends to be more animated in the presence of women. He genuinely enjoys the company of the opposite sex.”
“In Cabinet meetings, Reagan was generally animated . . . but the presence of Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick or Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole at a Cabinet meeting always made for a heightened presidential mood; he was more amusing, more talkative, more of a participant than a presence.”
Regan also says that the White House staff and the media were convinced that Pan American World Airways, which operates the press charter that accompanies Air Force One, assigns its prettiest stewardesses to the plane because the President loves to see these women in uniform waving at him when he lands.
Regan, on the other hand, earned a reputation as a misogynist, or at best patronizing to women, because of his hostile relations with Nancy Reagan, his Marine Corps macho attitude and several comments he made while White House staff chief.
Before the Geneva summit, for instance, he suggested that women “were not going to understand (missile) throw-weights or what is happening in Afghanistan” and instead wanted to hear about what Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev were wearing and other “human-interest stuff.”
Although a large part of the book is devoted to attacking Nancy Reagan for orchestrating the campaign of news leaks that he believes cost him his job, Regan also defends the President from charges that he knew of the diversion of Iran arms sale proceeds to the Contras and directed the campaign of support for the Nicaraguan rebels.
Color Drained From Face
When Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III told Reagan in November, 1986, that he had discovered that the profits from the arms sales had been diverted to the Contras, Reagan “blanched. The color drained from his face, leaving his skin pasty white,” Regan writes.
“Nobody who saw the President’s reaction that afternoon could believe for a moment that he knew about the diversion of funds before Meese told him about it. He was the picture of a man to whom the inconceivable had happened,” Regan writes.
In another note on the Iran-Contra affair, Regan writes of the dispute among White House advisers on what Reagan should do after the scandal unraveled. Regan said he personally believed that the President should speak out promptly but that former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter opposed such action.
He said Mrs. Reagan--after consulting with her San Francisco astrologer--also opposed a presidential press conference.
He described this telephone conversation:
“He’s not going to talk to the press,” she said. “My friend (the astrologer) says it’s, you know, it’s just wrong for him to talk right now.”
“My God, Nancy,” I replied. “He’s going to go down in flames if he doesn’t speak up.”
Staff writer Gaylord Shaw contributed to this story.