When Donald Regan was President Reagan’s chief of staff, he used to tell the president a new joke every morning. One day, as Fred Barnes reported shortly thereafter in the New Republic (I’m quoting from memory), Regan’s offering came in the form of a riddle:
“Deaver didn’t have it, but now he does. Meese doesn’t have it and never will. Baker’s got it but not enough. And I’ve got it.”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” said the president. “What is it?”
Donald T. Regan, who died on Tuesday at the age of 84, earned that money himself and used it as he saw fit.
Son of a policeman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Regan attended that city’s best public high school and its best-known private university. (Referring to a fellow Cantabridgian who went on to become Speaker of the House, Regan later said: “Tip went to BC [Boston College] and turned left. I went to Harvard and turned right.”) He served with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II, then went to Wall Street, where he rose to the presidency of Merrill Lynch.
These are all admirable achievements, but it was Regan’s outspokenness in his years of public life, first as Reagan’s treasury secretary and then as chief of staff, that have always distinguished him in my memory.
Asked if he respected only self-made rich people like himself, he told a reporter that no, he also respected people of inherited wealth. Blamed for not preventing the Iran-Contra imbroglio on his watch at the White House, he retorted: “Does the bank president know whether a teller in the bank is fiddling around with the books?” In a remark that especially irritated the First Lady, Regan likened working for the president to the job of a “shovel brigade that follow a parade down Main Street cleaning up.”
He was evidently well-matched with his wife, the former Ann Buchanan, who once explained to a journalist that she and her husband spent their evenings at home because they found Washington social life too provincial.
This sort of thing in another context would have been merely obnoxious, but in a place as unctuous and spittle-licking as the capital, it was refreshing.
We have Regan to thank for the revelation, in his post-firing memoir, that Nancy Reagan regularly asked an astrologer to approve her husband’s travel schedule. (It remained for the New York Times, I believe, to add that the astrologer had been introduced to Mrs. Reagan by none other than Merv Griffin.) Hard now to believe that there could have been a such a scandal over the First Lady practicing her religious beliefs. You might have thought she was taking her cues from the Bible.
That all these events feel so long ago is part of the reason I find Regan’s death so poignant. Deaver, Meese, Tip O’Neill — such names require footnotes now. Only yesterday, it seems, people were shouting them at dinner parties.
Yet it’s not just nostalgia for the 1980s, the period of my young manhood, that causes me to miss Regan. He represents a time before the ambitious chose their every word with care, even among friends, lest it come back to haunt them in some future article or committee hearing.
Long before he was rich or powerful, Donald Regan’s kindergarten teacher kicked him out of class for telling her how to run it. Surely he never needed a dime in order to tell anyone you-know-what.