Reagan’s Fall From Grace : The $2-Million Japan Tour, Nancy’s Vengeful Memoirs and Legal Battles Over the Iran-Contra Affair Have Made His Retirement Anything but Restful

<i> Martin Kasindorf is Los Angeles correspondent for Newsday. He has covered much of Ronald Reagan's political career. </i>

THIS IS THE GOOD LIFE for Ronald Reagan on what he calls the mashed-potato circuit: On a weekday morning last month, shortly before his 79th birthday, the former President arrives at Las Vegas’ Mirage hotel after a dash from Los Angeles on a corporate jet. America’s 40th chief executive is the featured speaker at a Prudential realty-division sales convention. Reagan is accompanied by Secret Service agents and his equally protective young press secretary, Mark Weinberg. Mirage executives have relayed to Weinberg requests by the local news media to cover the speech. He has said no.

At ease before hundreds of awe-struck real-estate agents, Reagan appears sturdy and strapping in a navy-blue suit. The audience murmurs, though, about how his hair has grown startlingly silver since he underwent surgery last September to remove fluid on the brain. These days, Reagan is laughing off the equestrian accident in Mexico that caused the skull problem by recounting a concerned admirer’s advice to “never ride a borrowed horse.” Restored to Great Communicator form, Reagan gives the standard speech he has crafted for business hosts. He argues--so familiarly--for a constitutional balanced-budget amendment and a presidential line-item veto, reforms he calls “the things we didn’t get done.”

He fields questions with what some listeners consider charming but non-responsive anecdotes. Then he offers what he says is one memory of his historic encounters with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The junketeers perk up. This world-level inside stuff is more like it. During the 1988 Moscow summit, as Reagan relates the story with an actor’s timing, the two leaders drove to a scenic waterfall. As the party stood above the cataract, Gorbachev asked one of Reagan’s bodyguards if he would dive to the bottom. The agent demurred, explaining, “I’ve got a wife and three kids.” Gorbachev made the same request of one of his own men, who complied at once. Appalled U.S. agents later asked the soaked Soviet why he had done it. “I’ve got a wife and three kids,” he said.


What? The conventioneers glance at each other, then grasp the story’s import. Free at last, Reagan is letting himself be Reagan. The tale is unreconstructed Evil Empire humor--wistful for dated Cold War certitudes perhaps, but harmless Yakov Smirnoff material. On billows of laughs, the salespeople wave Reagan off to a fast lunch with a few top Prudential executives. He is motored back to the airport, where a staked-out TV news crew manages an extreme zoom shot of two ex-presidential legs disappearing into the private jet.

In a bit more than two hours, Reagan has earned his private-sector speech price of $50,000 (no charge to charities or schools), less a commission of about 20% to his lecture agents, Washington Speakers Bureau Inc. At sunny resorts from Palm Springs to the Bahamas, where he spent his birthday Feb. 6 as a luncheon speaker for Sara Lee Corp., Reagan does “a couple or three a month” of these unpublicized Fortune 500 appearances, Weinberg says. Reagan is grossing as much as $1.8 million a year from this source alone.

The charismatic role model for an era, Ronald Wilson Reagan made it not only acceptable but almost a moral imperative for Americans to go out and get their piece of the rock in the ‘80s. Now he is going out and getting his in the less freebooting ‘90s but encountering some severe buffeting to his popularity.

Where Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter began their retirement years in defeat and bitterness, painfully climbing back to a measure of approbation, Reagan and his wife, Nancy, returned to private life amid widespread good will that has been dissipating in periodic accusations of greed and selfishness. First, there was his $2-million speaking tour in Japan, followed by harsh reaction to Nancy’s memoirs and to her desertion of a San Fernando Valley drug-treatment project. Then there were reports that the Internal Revenue Service was looking into Nancy’s habit of “borrowing” designer dresses for White House functions. And, just when things seemed to be settling down, the embarrassing Iran-Contra mess reappeared as lawyers for the former President battled to restrict his participation in the trial of his former national security adviser, retired Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter. Only recently have the Reagans taken steps to burnish images dented by the surprisingly rocky start to their ex-First Couplehood.

For the Great Communicator, whose standing plunged when he accepted the speaking honorarium from Japan’s Fujisankei communications conglomerate last October, the main impression to be overcome is that he has been inappropriately cashing in on his eight-year presidency.

DURING AN INTERVIEW in his 34th-floor Fox Plaza office above Avenue of the Stars, Reagan is asked to evaluate his busy new way of life. “ Well, " he says, “you just have to call it a change. It hardly can be called retirement.” It was all he could do, Reagan says, to prevail upon aides recently to free his schedule for “a few days at the ranch” on horseback each month.

Reagan circled Washington’s monuments aboard Marine Corps One for the last time on Jan. 20, 1989. Only three weeks later, while a friend, Holmby Hills venture capitalist Charles Z. Wick, was negotiating the $2-million deal with Fujisankei, the fledgling former President was addressing Coca-Cola and McDonald’s executives at conventions in Laguna Niguel.

Reagan’s embrace of business is entirely consistent with his role as a traveling spokesman for General Electric before he entered politics and with his Administration’s free-market philosophy. Moreover, most of his schedule is devoted to more traditional ex-presidential pursuits: the memoirs, the library, raising money for his political party. He has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and inducted into the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences.

With all this, the man seems to be doing a marathon champion’s job of carbo-loading on mashed potatoes. One February itinerary for the Reagans, like most of the former President’s frequent trips, combined paid “private business group” events with freely disclosed charity or campus functions and Republican fund-raisers.

The compensated stops are not what the average person would consider an economic necessity. Ronald and Nancy Reagan are collecting $131,623 in annual income from his pensions ($99,500 from the presidency, $32,123 from California) and at least $300,000 from other assets that were worth $4 million, at a minimum, before the tour of Japan. He receives handsome government-paid office space and $150,000 a year in federally funded staff assistance.

Nancy has made a few speeches at $30,000 apiece to non-charity groups, and the Reagans received a reported $7 million in publishers’ advances on three books: her critically blasted but best-selling “My Turn”; his “Speaking My Mind,” a compendium of ghosted White House speeches, and his forthcoming memoirs. Their New York literary agent, Morton Janklow, calls accounts of the advances “inaccurate,” but the Reagans obviously feel financially secure. Recently, Reagan says, they bought the three-bedroom Bel-Air home they had been leasing for $15,000 a month from an investment group of rich confidants. Market value of the 1 1/4-acre St. Cloud Road property, Beverly Hills real estate agent Jeffrey Hyland calculates, is nearly $6 million.

To support his enviable lifestyle, Reagan must endure a lot of travel that he doesn’t particularly enjoy. “The job I was in,” he says in his mangled syntax when unscripted, “travel began to be something I was saying, ‘Enough, already.’ ” Even so, he finds satisfaction in the commercial moments of his latest and most undefined role.

“I didn’t realize there were as many business seminars held around the country, convention-type things,” he says as he toys with a fountain pen at his antique desk. “And it’s amazing, the response. And some of them, a number of them, have played a trick on their own people, which has been a lot of fun for me. I get there and find that the group does not know I’m the speaker, and they’re going to hear it when finally I am introduced. And, of course, it makes the reception, with all that surprise and everything, kind of exciting.”

As gratifying as this blissfully undemanding pastime is, Reagan has run into unwritten restrictions on how a former President can earn money, and he forthrightly acknowledges the issue. “I think there are things that you might easily give in to that would simply be a capitalizing on the job that you had, and I don’t want to do that,” he says.

But Reagan was burned on Japan precisely because the visit, despite some bold warnings he gave the Japanese on their trade practices, was widely interpreted as the shameless huckstering of a President’s prestige. “The thing with Japan--that really pushed it over the edge,” says the Reagans’ 36-year-old novelist daughter, Patti Davis, who is estranged from her parents. The New York Times editorialized: “Former Presidents haven’t always comported themselves with dignity after leaving the Oval Office. But none have plunged so blatantly into pure commercialism.”

Reagan had to sit there and grin when Donald Trump, of all people, made a crack about the Japanese millions from the podium at the Hebrew University Scopus Awards dinner at the Beverly Hilton in January. And an Oregon Democratic congressman, Peter DeFazio, alluded to the Japan trip when introducing a bill to eliminate an ex-President’s pension for a year after any year in which he earns more than $400,000. “It’s unseemly, to say the least, when a former President cashes in on his prestige this way, and doubly so when he continues to receive his full presidential pension,” DeFazio said.

Nancy, meanwhile, has been grappling with problems of her own. Currently granting few interviews, she is said by friends to be “down in the dumps” about the deluge of setbacks, especially the hostile reviews of “My Turn.” The critics emphasized the combative, unintentionally revealing way Nancy recounted perceived slights, misunderstandings and malfeasances by everyone from her husband’s fired chief of staff, Donald Regan, to Raisa Gorbachev (whose hair, Nancy meowed, “became less red over the years!”).

As Sally Quinn wrote in the Washington Post, the book was “so hurtful, so painful, so embarrassing, so pathetic that it takes your breath away.” A treasured old friend, CBS’ Mike Wallace, left Nancy feeling shocked and betrayed after he relentlessly interrogated her for “60 Minutes.” Literary agent Janklow wrote Wallace, “I wish you’d been that tough on (Libyan leader Moammar) Kadafi.”

Nancy also was skewered in the press for her abrupt abandonment of an ostensibly heartfelt plan to place the Nancy Reagan Center, a $10-million Phoenix House drug-treatment facility, in the San Fernando Valley’s Lake View Terrace area. The moment a group of not-in-my-back-yard homeowners threatened to picket her leafy Bel-Air block, Nancy caved in, causing the respected Manhattan-based charity to forfeit $600,000 in option payments on the property. Some of Nancy’s friends (according to Phoenix House, they were Merv Griffin, Hollywood Park race track owner Marge Everett and businessman Leonard Straus) asked the organization to return their $270,000 in donations. Nancy, exasperated and wounded by the backlash, counterattacked after a lengthy silence by telling columnist Liz Smith last month that she had “worked hard to convince them not to do this.”

On the advice of lawyers, Phoenix House is keeping the gifts and seeking a smaller building elsewhere. “People have been very sympathetic,” a Phoenix House officer says. “If nothing else, the incident has brought attention to the issue of drug treatment. In certain ways, it has been cause for optimism.”

Nancy is also suffering through an IRS investigation into the taxability of her “borrowing” of designer couture during the White House years. Astrologer Joan Quigley contradicts Nancy’s “My Turn” recollections in a book to be published in April. And an unauthorized biography by author Kitty Kelley--expected to be a claw job--rounds out the former First Lady’s list of woes.

While in the White House, Nancy’s overriding concern was how history would regard her husband’s presidency. It is her most substantive worry these days that a favorable long-term appraisal of the Reagan years is far from secure. His generally well-received presidency is experiencing a troubled afterlife, disinterred by astoundingly fast-working revisionists appearing from every quarter.

Underscoring the invidious equation implied in President George Bush’s description of his own approach as “kinder and gentler,” Bush’s aides have drawn sly, not-for-attribution comparisons between their man’s hard-working habits and Reagan’s banker’s hours. Peggy Noonan, an all-but-worshiping White House speech writer for Reagan, invented “kinder and gentler” for Bush and declares in her new book, “What I Saw at the Revolution,” that the battle for the mind of Reagan was fought over “barren terrain.” Other books try to paint the Reagan ‘80s as having been typified by criminal Wall Street greed. Writer Paul Slansky, characterized by Newsweek as a “career Gippophobe,” seeks to scratch away the final millimeters of Teflon with a low-flying collection of Reagan howlers titled “The Clothes Have No Emperor.” Friends say Reagan gets more upset by Nancy’s bad press than his own, but even her difficulties are no match for his celebrated optimism. “Like anything, of course, sometimes you run into little bumps that you hadn’t counted on,” he allows brightly, “but that goes with everyday life, I think, for all of us.”

Not much gets him down, not even his admittedly expensive court battle to minimize his role in the Poindexter trial. “I can understand it,” he says of the hefty bills he’s been paying lawyers. Poindexter, charged with conspiracy and obstructing Congress, argues that Reagan authorized all his actions. Yet Reagan’s attorneys fought for months to keep their client clear of the proceedings, finally agreeing in the face of compelling legal precedents that he would give videotaped testimony in a Los Angeles courtroom. The judge in Poindexter’s impending trial, which will be held in Washington, can review the tape to excise any inadvertent breaches of national security.

At the same time, Reagan has stuck to a Nixonian claim of executive privilege when asked to provide some of his diary entries to Poindexter. There could be years of appeals over Reagan’s position in this land mine of a case, prolonging the unfavorable impression of Reagan as a man of one-way loyalty when his most self-sacrificing defenders need his aid. Retired Maj. Gen. Richard Secord sniped in January after his own Iran-Contra sentencing to two years’ probation: “Former President Reagan has been hiding out. I think it’s cowardly.”

DEMONSTRABLY, REAGAN recognizes that he has a serious problem of public perception. Even before the Japan tour, a Times Mirror survey last August rated Reagan “highly believable” by only 16% of Americans, just above talk-show host Geraldo Rivera at the bottom of a list of 16 public figures and news organizations. To prevent further erosion of his image, he has enlisted a volunteer corps of prominent public-relations executives, including Robert K. Gray in Washington and Harold Burson, of Burson-Marsteller Inc., in New York. From Irvine, Stuart Spencer, an old campaign hand, advises Reagan on which politicians’ fund-raising invitations to accept or avoid.

The still-resonating Fujisankei disaster notwithstanding, friend Charles Wick doesn’t stint on his advice when he sees the Reagans socially, “up to two or three times a week,” he says. After all, Reagan put Wick in charge of America’s international image for eight years at the U.S. Information Agency. As Gray tells it, “Charlie Wick is the No. 1 adviser to him, and has been for a long time. He gives advice not only when he’s asked, but sometimes when he isn’t asked.”

What sort of issues does Reagan bounce off this loyalist guard? “Oh, lordy,” Reagan muses in the Rectangular Office, gazing toward the ocean shimmering a few miles from his windows. “Well . . . if you were making a journey, and so forth, you might, because we were all involved in the relations with another country, you might feel them out on what their view is in addition to your own. . . . If I did this or accepted that invitation or something, would that appear to you as cashing in or capitalizing on it, or something of that kind? And they’ve all got darn good taste.”

The gurus won’t reveal their advice, but no more high-profile foreign speaking trips are in the works. Management of the Reagan image has tightened considerably, with former White House deputy press secretary Weinberg as the well-wired lead defender. When a journalist called Revlon Group Inc. about Nancy’s membership on its board of directors, Weinberg responded, demanding, “Why were you calling Revlon?” Robert Lindsey, a Carmel journalist and author (“The Falcon and the Snowman”) collaborating with Reagan on the still-untitled memoirs, is contractually sworn to silence. The lecture agency bucks media questions to Weinberg.

Meanwhile, Reagan’s charitable activities have become much more visible. United Way’s local chapter received a $10,000 gift from the former First Couple. Reagan asked Disneyland to pay his $50,000 fee for an appearance at the amusement park’s 35th anniversary celebration, then surprised many who had considered his Administration stingy toward AIDS research by donating the money to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Santa Monica. “I hope he doesn’t go overboard,” Gray says about such giveaways. “It’s important to keep his clout from the money he’s able to draw.”

WHEN REAGAN IS IN Los Angeles, a Secret Service sedan tailed by a gun-toting station wagon drops him at Fox Plaza at 10 a.m. Perhaps the city’s glitziest tower, the skyscraper where Bruce Willis vanquished terrorists in the movie “Die Hard” shrieks of the push for money and power from every pink marble neo-Moderne angle. The lobby directory is heavy with entertainment lawyers, industrialists such as Marvin Davis and Alfred Checchi, Australian and British broadcasting companies.

Reagan’s rooms and those of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation, the Nancy Reagan Foundation and the Secret Service detail (Reagan calls them “S.S. agents”) take up the heavily secured top floor. The ex-presidential suite, studded with bronze eagles and sagebrush canvases, could belong to the president of a major university except for the photos of Reagan with world leaders. The 20 or so faces in the suite, from the rangy chief of staff, Fred Ryan, to the greenest intern, are predominantly youthful and as conservative-looking as an “Up With People!” chorus.

When he arrives, Reagan finds on his desk a copy of the presidential news summary faxed from the White House. First off, he confers with Ryan, Weinberg and Kathy Osborne, his executive assistant, on the day’s agenda. Then the parade of visitors begins. They have included Vice President Dan Quayle, Mother Teresa, Brian Mulroney of Canada and other visiting prime ministers. Journalists are asked to provide a list of questions for Reagan in advance.

In a conference room dominated by the breathtaking view, Reagan videotapes a testimonial, say, for a Billy Graham tribute. No longer supplied a Peggy Noonan, he inks his own brief comments for an American Ireland Fund dinner (“as Henry the Eighth said to each of his six wives, ‘I won’t keep you long’ ”), or answers a letter that appeals to him.

Every few weeks, Lindsey flies in from Carmel. Reagan dictates thoughts for the memoirs then; at other times, he jots them down on yellow legal pads at home. Reagan hints that--with a few nods to the early years he recorded in the 1965 “Where’s the Rest of Me?"--his memoirs will be a milder “My Turn,” emphasizing his explanations of controversial White House decisions. The Simon & Schuster book, Janklow says, could appear as early as this fall. But Reagan will be no Nixon: Like Nancy, he has no plans for other books.

Edmund Morris, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, traveled from Washington recently to ask some of his final questions for the Random House historical biography of Reagan that he expects to deliver early in 1991, after six years of generous access to his subject. “He’s the most cooperative man in the world,” Morris says of the former President, who is receiving no money for the book.

Reagan is briefed every two weeks on the progress of his library, which is expected to open soon after his 80th birthday next year. Driven from Stanford University by faculty and student opposition, the $43-million-plus project is under construction at a Simi Valley hilltop site donated by developers who own adjoining acreage. The location, one scarcely associated with Reagan, is at least convenient, “between the ranch and his Bel-Air home,” rationalizes Charles Jelloian, the library foundation’s operations director. The Mission-style building will contain a museum “centered on the ‘80s,” Jelloian says, as well as presidential papers and research rooms. For now, the tons of documents are stuffed into a Culver City warehouse under National Archives control.

The foundation trustees are headed by two former attorneys general, William French Smith as chairman and Edwin Meese III as the forgiving vice chairman. (Nancy bashed Meese in “My Turn.”) The trustees will turn the completed library over to the government but will operate a conference center there. In keeping with the self-conscious policy of withholding the names of corporations paying Reagan to speak, something any cub reporter can discover after a few phone calls, the foundation more successfully guards its list of contributors.

The former First Lady has her own impeccable office at the Nancy Reagan Foundation, where she works on the anti-drug fight a few days a month. Her foundation, its blue-chip board chaired by former CIA director Richard Helms, raises $500,000 a year, mainly through a celebrity tennis tournament. It has distributed grants to drug education and treatment programs helping primarily minority youngsters in Southern California. The foundation schedules her appearances at schools, where she is still urging children to “just say no.”

Around 3 p.m., Reagan is driven the 10-minute route home. He is as bemused as any other Southern Californian by how the region has changed. “I do not recall ever seeing the traffic situation the way it is,” he says, shaking his head. At the house, a refurbished, older ranch-style that daughter Patti disdains as “so sort of perfect, with all those little art pieces and figurines,” Reagan can lift weights in his gym or swim in the heated pool. Most evenings, he and Nancy watch old movies together on television--just Ronnie and Mommy and the Secret Service. Their socializing runs “in spurts,” Wick says. Dinners out are most often at old favorites, Chasen’s or the Bistro. Reagan gives no indication of discovering new pleasures in retirement. He goes along with the routine of office work and travel, broken by chain-sawing firewood and riding at the Santa Barbara-area ranch.

For all the sentiment conveyed by about two dozen chrome-framed family photographs behind Reagan’s office desk, the blended family of his two marriages is not much closer-knit than it ever was. For example, when Nancy moved back from Washington, she publicly voiced a desire to reconcile with Patti. That hasn’t happened, and it’s no wonder. There were two or three “brief, cordial meetings” at the Bel-Air house in the first months, says Davis, who recently separated from her husband, yoga instructor Paul Grilley. Then came “My Turn,” in which Nancy avenged herself for every one of Patti’s babyhood tantrums. “I haven’t spoken to her since the book came out,” Patti says. “She messengered it to me for my birthday, which I thought was, uh, an interesting birthday present.”

NO LONGER WHOLESALING the presidency through glaringly large honorariums, Reagan is continuing to cash in on a more discreet $50,000 retail level, some might say. Scrutinized as any ex-President is, fairly or not, why would someone of Reagan’s ample resources risk his popularity to do it?

For one thing, Reagan believes he has the right, indeed the duty, to be a breadwinner. “I think unless someone’s got inherited wealth, they should be willing to earn a living outside,” he says. In fact, Reagan remains as stubbornly unrepentant about Fujisankei as he is about Iran-Contra. “I just thought that in 16 years I hadn’t made any kind of money,” he candidly told the Hollywood Radio and Television Society last November. He apologized only for remarks he made in Japan welcoming Japanese takeovers of Hollywood studios as a means of restoring decency to American films.

In a January cable appearance on “Larry King Live!” Reagan defended the big honorarium by citing an American actor who reportedly received $3 million for a Japanese commercial. King passed up the opportunity to make the obvious point that Reagan cannot intuit: The unidentified actor he mentioned was not a former President of the United States.

Beyond the reasoning that others do it, Reagan cites a resulting new charitable capacity “to help more than I have.” Illinois’ tiny Eureka College is one beneficiary of his growing concern with giving. “My little alma mater has always lived in genteel poverty,” he says. “And to anticipate the ability to send a meaningful check there occasionally that helps them in their problems . . . you can do some good with money, and I believe in doing that.” Officials at Eureka confirm that Reagan has been a generous Class of ’32 alumnus.

Another rationale for turning Reagan’s twilight years into his peak earning years involves the unexpected drains on an ex-President’s checkbook in this litigious, second-guessing era. The plague of Poindexter legal bills represents one argument for building a healthy reserve. “These are decent, honest people,” Wick says, “and they came back to a life where financial need, the need to earn money, was a matter of consequence to them.”

Others might attribute to the couple less conscious motivations for maximizing their assets. The Reagans were long the poorest of their social set, their cash believed to be a pittance compared with that of socialite Betsy Bloomingdale or steel magnate Earle Jorgensen. After decades of relative sacrifice in politics, the Reagans don’t have much time to catch up.

“It’s been important for a Republican President to make money on a par with his wealthy friends,” says Erwin Hargrove, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and author of a 1988 study of Carter’s presidency. “That’s been true for Ike, Ford and now Reagan. They not only feel inferior to the businessmen they socialize with, they admire these guys.”

Whatever Reagan’s reasons, Duke University presidential scholar James David Barber takes a purist’s view of the potato-mashing: “He’s using public service for making bucks. The role of an ex-President is to be a hero for the youth of the nation, to bring out the duty that every citizen has to serve the nation. Has he no sense of having been benefited? Having the power of the country means you have to do something for the country later on.”

Reagan, however, is not unique among America’s former presidents in doing well while often doing good. Hargrove has little trouble scanning recent history for rough analogies to Reagan’s postprandial entertainment of corporate America: Lyndon Johnson’s “frenetic” hands-on operation of his Texas broadcasting properties in retirement, John F. Kennedy’s idea of buying the New York Herald Tribune after leaving the Oval Office. To pose the question of what amounts to “cashing in” is to confront the issue of whether America has the right to make any demand of the nation’s former commanders-in-chief. Opinions run the gamut from laissez-faire to flinty puritanism.

“To put it in Hollywood terms, we make our Presidents contract players,” argues Robert Gray. “When the contract is up, their lives should be their own.” George Bush, queried about Reagan’s fee-for-service practices, diplomatically breezed, “Everybody’s got the right to make a living.” Barber contends that former Presidents should forswear all commercial advantage from public service. “It’s wrong,” he says.

On ABC’s “Nightline” during the height of the furor over Fujisankei, Gray proposed ending the debate by officially defining the role of an ex-President. One suggestion involves a “public elder statesman” Senate seat based on the example of John Quincy Adams, who served 19 years in the House of Representatives after his Administration ended in 1829. “Naive,” Hargrove scoffs. “They’ve had their time in the sun. To call them a ‘national resource’ is quite mistaken.”

As Hargrove interprets the wavy line America has drawn, “it adds up to Presidents being able to do whatever they want, within certain bounds of decency and taste.” These bounds, he declares, “Reagan probably overstepped. The values of the private sector permeated the Reagan Administration and got them into trouble. A guy like Ed Meese couldn’t tell the difference. I think Reagan certainly reflects that.”

In truth, none of Reagan’s living counterparts would satisfy an ascetic’s conception of an ex-President. Carter hammers nails into inner-city Habitat for Humanity housing and mediates civil wars in the Horn of Africa but says he doesn’t mean to set himself up as a model for the others. Besides, he, too, accepts one or two lecture payments a month, without a fixed price or an agent.

Nixon, even with his obsessive political schmoozing behind the scenes, may come closest to the modern pattern that was established and all but sanctified by Harry S Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower: Make an acceptable killing on your memoirs, provide world-affairs advice when asked and stay out of the marketplace. Nixon steers clear of big business and declines pay for his few speeches. Still, he has amassed appreciable wealth from San Clemente and Manhattan real-estate dealings as well as from his conveyor-belt output of books on public policy.

It was Gerald R. Ford who paved the path for Reagan in breaking the modern taboo against joining the business world. By 1987, Ford was on eight corporate boards of directors. At 76, “he’s trying to retire,” says Penny Circle, Ford’s chief of staff, but he is still a director of American Express and its Shearson Lehman Hutton and IDS Financial Services subsidiaries, as well as Tesoro Petroleum, Texas Commerce Bancshares, Nova Pharmaceuticals, Primerica and Spectradyne. Ford continues to make one or two paid speeches every month, but compared with Reagan, he’s a bargain at $15,000.

Both Ford and Carter accepted business-paid trips to Japan before Reagan did. Kansai Television has imported Ford twice, Carter once. The YKK Co., which operates a zipper factory in Georgia, has hosted several other Carter visits to Japan.

Unlike Ford, Reagan has not accepted directorships. Nancy has. At the urging of Revlon chairman Ronald O. Perelman, who barely knew her, she joined the board last June. The privately held company will not disclose her compensation. Similar-sized public firms are paying outside directors $17,500 to $20,000 a year.

Reagan says he stands ready for public missions in the Herbert Hoover tradition, but he has formed no overarching conception of what continuing value he can provide, in the way Carter has regained luster by focusing on international conflict resolution. “Well,” Reagan ventures, “I’ll do whatever can be helpful to the present President in that regard.”

Is he in the Bush loop? “It depends on what’s going on,” he says. “Sometimes he gives me a ring; sometimes I think of something and call him. We exchange notes every once in a while.” Reagan has been back to the White House once, for the unveiling of his official portrait. He has a standing invitation from Gorbachev to visit the Soviet Union and still corresponds with the Soviet leader.

The “gilded cage” of White House living, as Reagan calls it, wore on him. He expresses no nostalgia for the crises and policy disputes. Among his relatively few known suggestions on international subjects in recent months was an idea for a Berlin Olympics in 2000 or 2004, a proposal adopted by East and West German officials, Bush and Gorbachev.

What Reagan misses is the woodsy getaways at Camp David. “You can walk out the front door or the back door if you want,” he says mistily, “and there are myriad things to do. You can take a hike there, and it’s all right. As I say, it’s a normal home, and, thanks to Dwight Eisenhower, in your back yard now you’ve got a putting green and sort of a pitch-and-putt situation where you can practice a little golf swinging, and there’s a pool. . . . The Park Police would bring up horses, and we’d ride.”

HAROLD BURSON says, “President Reagan came out on such a high as a President that people are expecting him to live up to an even higher standard. I think he recognizes that.” It wouldn’t take much for Reagan to revive the good feeling engendered by his legendary charm, but if he is to regain his sure-footedness, he must go beyond public-relations damage control. At a minimum, an end to the secretiveness about his paid speakings and the library donors would forestall suspicion and cynicism.

“He eventually will look as good as he is,” Gray predicts. “His natural instincts are good. And his heart is in the right place.”

Reagan’s heart could provide one key to attaining the peace of mind millions of admirers have wished for the couple. He may prove himself most happily educable in fronting for charities with difficult messages to communicate, thereby becoming a social resource on a par with Carter’s high-minded example--a veritable point of light. He has made a start with help that has overwhelmed Elizabeth Glaser, who with her husband, Paul Michael Glaser, the co-star of TV’s “Starsky and Hutch,” was among the founders of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

While still in the White House, Reagan invited Elizabeth Glaser for a long chat, touched by her plight. She contracted the HIV virus during pregnancy through a blood transfusion, which resulted in the death of the couple’s daughter from AIDS at age 6 and HIV-positive readings for their 5-year-old son. Not much came of the talk, but Reagan has become more involved in recent months, even to the extent of hauling Christmas gifts to AIDS-stricken children at UCLA Medical Center.

Like many other activists, Glaser thought Reagan’s Administration was late and grudging when it came to AIDS. “There are people who feel very angry at him,” she says, “but we feel very grateful that he is now happy to help. As the Great Communicator, he has an open line to a large section of the country that possibly no one else can reach.”

Reagan spent a few months pondering his proper role, then offered to tape a public-service spot aimed at the ignorance that often makes HIV-positive children pariahs. Many television viewers have seen the Chiat / Day / Mojo spot by now.

Looking earnestly into the camera at the Hotel Bel-Air, Reagan says this: “We all grow and learn in our lives, and I’ve learned that all kinds of people can get AIDS, even children. But it’s the disease that’s frightening, not the people who have it. You know, you can’t catch AIDS from hugging someone. I’m not asking you for your money. I’m asking you for something even more important--your understanding. Maybe it’s time we all learned something new.”