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.
When doctors discovered an apparently cancerous polyp in the President’s bowel, for example, they told Nancy Reagan first. She, then, informed her husband of the need to have surgery, but only after strictly forbidding the doctors from mentioning the word “cancer.” Only after the operation was finished did anyone tell Ronald Reagan what the operation was really for.
Not long after, when doctors discovered a small skin cancer on the President’s nose, Nancy Reagan instructed Press Secretary Larry Speakes to lie to reporters and say the growth was merely a “pimple,” a transparent falsehood that was quickly exposed.
Only a few pages after describing those deceptions, Nancy Reagan describes the very different standard she insists on for herself. “I’m no good if anybody, even in the kindest way, doesn’t level with me.”
But leveling with others does not seem to be Reagan’s priority. Even here, in her “Memoirs,” for example, Reagan refuses to divulge her actual age. Nor does she mention, as she describes her courtship with Ronald Reagan, that she had previously been engaged to another man, although she does make a point of noting that for one wild week she dated Clark Gable in New York.
Similarly, she admits that Ronald Reagan initially was reluctant to get married again after his divorce from Jane Wyman and says she gradually persuaded him, but she reveals little about how she did so. She does, however, admit what has long been known--that the two announced their engagement in late February, 1952, were married 12 days later and that their daughter, Patti, was born “a bit precipitously” seven-and-a-half months after that. “Go ahead and count” is about all she says on the subject.
Her age and the details of her courtship are not the only major omissions in Reagan’s book. Her adoptive father, Dr. Loyal Davis, was clearly one of the major influences in her life. He is, for example, one of the few people about whom she hasn’t a single negative word. His death in 1982 was clearly a major trauma. It receives virtually no mention, by contrast with the death and funeral of her mother, described at length.
And although her anti-drug program centered, at least initally, on the need for parents and children to communicate, Reagan says absolutely nothing about any communication with her children about drugs. Both Patti and Ron Reagan have spoken publicly about occasional marijuana use. What impression that left on their mother remains a mystery.
In fact, considering how insistent Reagan has been about the importance of her anti-drug campaigns, the topic receives barely a mention in this book, merely a few passing lines at the beginning and the end. Far more space is taken up with detailed descriptions of, for example, the menu and guest list for the state dinner the Reagans hosted for Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev during the Washington summit in December, 1987.
Revelations are few here. Readers hoping for new insights or information about the Reagan White House will not find it. What they will find is the unvarnished Nancy Reagan who has learned, she says, “to just go on being myself.”