She was a terrific First Lady. But one episode in particular stands out with me.
In 1986, I was a young associate political director in the Reagan White House. And of a sudden the White House was engulfed in what quickly became known as the “Iran-Contra” affair. What was immediately striking was Mrs. Reagan’s repeated efforts to get White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan fired.
I confess I was silently cheering her on.
The other day my friend and ex-boss Drew Lewis passed away. Andrew L. “Drew” Lewis, whom I met in 1973 when he was preparing to run for governor of Pennsylvania the following year, was nationally famous as President Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation who fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. By 1984 he had returned to the private sector, serving as the chairman and CEO of Warner-Amex (American Express) cable communications — the forerunner of today’s Time-Warner. Sought after by Nancy Reagan to run the Reagan re-election campaign, Drew declined and instead accepted a trouble-shooting role with the campaign. I served as his chief of staff. The campaign, in the more than capable hands of Ed Rollins and Lee Atwater, was a smashing success, carrying 49-states. Campaign over — another one quietly began.
It seemed that White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III had about drained his energies in his White House job, and was looking forward to a change. Almost instantly a quiet campaign began to recruit Drew Lewis to replace him. One suspects that Mrs. Reagan, a decided Drew fan, was one of the people suggesting him. Certainly there were others. I remember a call from Ed Meese, a good friend of Drew’s, saying he was on his way to La Casa Blanca.
Then one fine day as I worked outside Drew’s office in Rockefeller Center I heard him calling me to come in right away. In I raced, and there was Drew looking at the television as Ronald Reagan stepped into the White House briefing room flanked by Baker and Secretary of the Treasury Don Regan. Smiling, Reagan stunned everyone by announcing that the two men were swapping jobs — Baker would become Treasury Secretary, Regan the White House Chief of Staff.
Both Drew Lewis and I were amazed. Not at Baker… he was a superbly talented guy. But Regan as chief of staff? Not good. Later in the day, in my presence, Drew spoke with Jim Baker on the phone. Among other things Drew said he thought the swap was good for Baker — but he wasn’t so sure it was a good deal for the President. With reason.
As part of his trouble-shooting job for the Reagan re-election campaign, Drew had been assigned the task of being the White House liaison to the 1984 Republican Platform Committee. I was his point person on this, and it quickly became apparent there was work to be done. Platform Committees, when the party has a president in the White House, need to balance the writing of a platform that both reflects the views of the delegates, the GOP rank-and-file… and what is in fact official administration policy.
Thus it was that Drew and I were in a sweltering Dallas, Texas at the Republican National Convention going about the business of working with delegates on the platform. There was a glitch. A fight emerged — in full public view — between those (can you say “Bob Dole”?) who wanted a platform plank that allowed for raising taxes. And there were those (that would be Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp) who were fervently opposed. And there were one heck of a lot of delegates who agreed with Newt and Jack.
All of this was playing out under the glare of the television lights. And watching in Washington was a very unhappy Treasury Secretary Regan. There was one memorable moment in this. During a break in the platform hearings, we had returned to Drew’s hotel suite… where a call came in from Secretary Regan. Suffice to say, he was not just unhappy but explosively so. Who did these delegates think they were, he demanded. He, Donald T. Regan, was, by God, the Secretary of the Treasury — and these delegates had no business interfering in his business. And oh by the way, Regan threatened that he was of a mind to get on his Treasury jet and come to Dallas in person to set these morons on the Platform Committee straight. At one point Drew held out the phone and I could hear Regan bellowing all the way from Washington.
It was precisely this kind of conduct that caused Drew concern about Regan in the Chief of Staff’s job. The operative word in the title is not the first but the last — “staff.” And Don Regan simply did not see himself in that way. Be that as it may, Regan got the job.
While Drew wouldn’t go the White House, I did. Keeping my head down in the Political Affairs office I could see first hand that Drew’s concerns were coming true. First it was the Secret Service. Yes, indeed, Regan became the first COS to have a Secret Service detail. I noticed as well that there was the business of the public announcement of his presence. When the President — any president — enters some public event in the East Room or where there is military aide making an announcement of his entrance. Over a loudspeaker one hears: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.” Now, before we were hearing this there was an addition: “Ladies and gentlemen, the chief of staff to the President of the United States, the Honorable Donald T. Regan.” Then there was the patio. The patio? Yes, it seemed that Regan so loved his West Wing office that he had a patio installed, at his own expense he said. He proudly showed it to an astonished Nancy. She quickly observed the obvious — Regan’s patio was bigger than the President’s. One winced.
If you were Mrs. Reagan, you did more than wince. By the time she was reading a Regan statement that he felt like the guy cleaning up after the elephant parade, she wanted him gone. And that was before the Iran-Contra scandal hit. There’s no point in rehashing all of Iran-Contra other than to say I always felt she got something of a bum rap here. Did she want Regan fired? Absolutely. Was she making her case to her husband? Yes again. But in fact it wasn’t just Nancy Reagan that Don Regan had antagonized. In fact, he had managed to tick off all manner of people all over Washington, D.C. He had antagonized both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, on Capitol Hill and off. The media couldn’t stand him. The Reagan Cabinet thought him out of control, ditto the ever so quiet White House staff. And don’t forget the Vice President. While he wouldn’t, apparently, tell the President, George Bush did tell Nancy Reagan.
Finally, as Reagan’s ratings in the polls plunged, horrifying Mrs. Reagan because she knew her husband may have made a mistake here or there but certainly had not done anything of a deliberately illegal nature much less engage in a cover-up — the President himself made up his mind to fire Regan. It did not go well. The news leaked on CNN, and Regan, offended, wrote a one-sentence letter of resignation, had it hand delivered — and walked out. Never to speak to the President again. Mrs. Reagan’s first choice was — Drew Lewis. But Drew, now the chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, was no longer in a place to take the job. In the end it went to former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, who, along with Ken Duberstein as his deputy and a couple of Baker aides, came in as a breath of fresh air and did an excellent job of restoring the place.
But let it be said. There was one reason and one reason only for Mrs. Reagan’s intervention. She was not some power-crazed mad woman. She was protecting her “Ronnie.” A task she had performed repeatedly over the years — and done it so well. And in this case she had managed to save a presidency as well, a presidency that is now viewed by the American people as one of the greatest in American history.
The role of First Lady is a difficult one. The spouse of a president, un-elected, is more often than not damned if they do and damned if they don’t. So was the case in her day for Nancy Reagan. Yet she rose above it. And in the doing became one of the most important, influential-for-the-good First Ladies in history.
God bless her. She will be missed.
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