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

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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.

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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.

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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.

On the Iran-Contra fiasco, all of the blame is shifted neatly to the shoulders of Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter: “Much of what happened was hidden from the President (and incidentally from me) by McFarlane and . . . Poindexter,” Regan writes. Regan is believable about the President, who according to this book had most things concerning his Administration and indeed his health kept from him. But Regan concedes that McFarlane did try repeatedly and without success to raise the matter early on with the President. What is hard to believe is that McFarlane’s persistence on this did not alert Regan to the fact that something big was up.

Throughout the book, there are examples of Regan shielding a minimalist President from reality. At the height of the public furor over the Iran-Contra controversy, Regan recounts a scene in which Attorney General Edmund Meese confirms the accuracy of media reports that an illegal diversion of public funds has occurred. Regan writes: “The President looked at Ed Meese in disbelief. . . . ‘This is a bitter blow, Mr. President,’ I said. He shook his head in bewilderment. He was pale and unsmiling. What went on in their minds? he asked. Do you understand it, Don? I did not know how to answer his question. It was well past the hour when he usually left the office and went home. ‘Why don’t you go upstairs, Mr. President?’ I suggested. ‘There’s nothing more you can do today.’ ”

Well, Regan could, at the very least, have asked the President for a word of guidance as to the Administration’s position on its biggest crisis. Instead, after stopping off in Langley to chat with CIA Director Casey and “before going to bed,” he drafted his own plan of action which was basically a plan for media damage control.

Casey’s apparently pivotal role is simply ignored in this account. We are told quite a bit about how poorly he played his last round of golf; but by contrast with the surfeit of internal gossip on other matters and other people, there are no Regan-supplied anecdotes of what his old Wall Street friend Casey might have known. All Regan can tell us is that “no record of his alleged participation in the affair has been discovered, so the question remains unanswered. Probably that would not bother Bill Casey; he is no doubt just as ready to serve his country in the next world as he had always been in this one.” Is there a Pulitzer for non-sequiturs?

And once again, Nancy Reagan is denounced, this time for the “inhuman advice” of suggesting a replacement for Casey after his incapacitating and eventually mortal brain cancer.

At no point in this book does Regan deal with Iran-Contra in the terms raised by the joint congressional investigation; that is, as profound rupture of the Constitutional division of powers. Instead, it is viewed as a PR disaster and little more. And once again, the messengers, not the message, are the problem: “Since Vietnam and Watergate, much of the big-time media have tended to regard every public official, elected or appointed, as a suspect from the day he takes office, and public service as a crime waiting to happen.”

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Forget, for purposes of this book, that this man Regan presided over an Administration that has produced more indicted and investigated officials than any in American history. The argument is evidently that no one would have noticed if the press had been pre-Vietnam tame. The media used to be proper gentlemen. Now, “Famous faces from the evening news scowled and reddened as their owners, tethered by microphone cords to television cameras, shouted for my attention.” They didn’t get it.

Regan concedes that he approved the emergence of Pat Buchanan, then White House director of communications, as the point man for the Administration’s public defense of Iran-Contra. “Pat had spoken out with my prior approval of his action if not his exact words, and if I was a little surprised when he gave a speech at a rally in Lafayette Park in which he called the President’s critics in the media ‘a liberal lynch mob,’ I could hardly claim that I did not know what his views were before he expressed them.”

Nancy Reagan, bless her heart, demanded Buchanan’s resignation and in the meantime wanted him closely watched. “Don’t you let Pat have a single thing to do with writing Ronnie’s State of the Union speech,” Regan reports the First Lady as telling him. “His ideas aren’t Ronald Reagan’s ideas.” But instead of dealing with this incident as involving a principled disagreement between himself and Mrs. Reagan over the projection of presidential views, Regan once again, in the very next paragraph, drags in the astrologer in connection with some unrelated travel matters having no bearing on the Buchanan affair. This is nothing more than an ad hominem smear.

Indeed this book is devoid of principled argument for any substantive position taken by the author while he was in the Administration. Regan defends his and the President’s stonewalling to the press after the story broke, insisting that there had not been an arms-for-hostage exchange even though such an exchange had obviously occurred: “He (Reagan) knew, of course, that the United States had shipped anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran and that certain Iranians had exerted influence over terrorists in Lebanon to facilitate the release of American hostages. But in Ronald Reagan’s own mind, that did not constitute a swap of arms for hostages.”

While much of the book is taken up with the Iran-Contra scandal, the discussion is a lesson in obfuscation. In the effort to absolve the President and his chief of staff, almost no attention is paid to Oliver North’s principal argument that he was operating within acknowledged Administration policy on both the Contras and Iran.

But Regan himself concedes accepting a large part of the premise, which was that it was both desirable and possible to do business with the very Iranians whom the President had been publicly describing as terrorists. While we pressured our allies to abstain from such contacts, Regan admits that “At the time, I myself believed that the potential benefits--not only the return of the hostages, but also the opening of a dialogue with a faction that might one day come to power in one of the most strategically important countries in the world--outweighed the risk.” That George Shultz and Casper Weinberger went public with their previous opposition to the Iran initiative is interpreted by Regan as abandoning a besieged President. Regan does not deal seriously with Secretary of State Shultz’s argument that the effort to find such moderates in the Tehran government was absurd.

Indeed the only thing dealt with seriously in this superficial and for its last two-thirds very dull tome is the former chief of staff’s tirade against the First Lady and her astrologer, suggesting Mrs. Reagan’s responsibility for all that ails this Administration and for none of its successes. It is a claim of causality so spurious that by comparison, even bubble-gum astrology might appear an exact science.

Regan emerges as a petulant and pedestrian officer of the day, preoccupied with public opinion polls and the President’s image rather than with the substance of issues and with absolutely no hint of a vision of what the presidency might be. The President, if he is as abysmally unfocused as Regan describes, should be grateful that at least he had Nancy and her charts.

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