White House tales

IN a publisher's blurb in this week's Time magazine, White House correspondent Barrett Seaman tells of his reaction when he got his first look at the manuscript of Donald Regan's new book. He was on a plane flying off to the Bahamas. ``Settling in for the flight ... I picked up the text. Not a minute later, almost involuntarily, I let forth a cry that caused several passengers to turn in their seats,'' he says. By the time his plane landed, he was sure that Time and the book's publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, had a best seller on their hands.

Mr. Seaman's journalistic scream was understandable. If ever there was a book brilliantly packaged to deliver a startling revelation with sensational, moneymaking impact, it is Mr. Regan's ``For the Record.'' We do not get beyond Paragraph 4 of Chapter 1 before the author reveals Mrs. Reagan's penchant for dabbling in astrology.

For achieving the publisher's goal of selling books, it was a clever coup. Much of the book is unremarkable, a mildly interesting story of Regan's early life and his progression through Wall Street to government. Without the White House revelation and the attendant publicity, its sales would certainly have been more modest.

But what of Regan's motivation? Why did he write a book clearly intended to damage the man he had served and Mrs. Reagan, for whom he has obvious contempt. Why did he publish it now, in the last months of the Reagan presidency?

Was it the desire for money? That can hardly be so. Regan has frequently told us that he has a lot of it. He says he is going to give the advance (reported to be $1 million) to charity.

Was it that Mr. Regan considered Mrs. Reagan's horoscope reading so dangerous to the state that he had to publicize it? That cannot be so. He has had ample opportunity to warn against it in interviews since he left the government, but instead carefully husbanded the revelation for his book. And in the book itself, he says that while Mrs. Reagan's astrological consultations may have influenced the timing of some meetings, they never affected policy or serious decisionmaking.

Was it an overwhelming question of principle and conscience for Mr. Regan? Apparently not, because he treats it as just another bizarre characteristic of the dragon lady he perceives to be at Mr. Reagan's side.

And so, sadly, we must conclude that this latest package of backstairs gossip from the White House was motivated largely by ego and the desire for vindication and retaliation.

The great strength of our society is that anybody can publish pretty much anything. That doesn't necessarily mean that anybody should. Taste, propriety, loyalty, should surely be weighed in the motivation.

I am not for curbing legitimate information, and if our leaders have some bizarre inclinations, we ought to know about them. But the relish and the mercenary manner in which Regan has marketed his revelations is unseemly for one who held such a trusted and influential position in the White House.

It may be, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes in the Wall Street Journal this week, that ``when presidents appoint jerks to high office, they have only themselves to blame if the jerks behave like jerks thereafter.''

Anyway, Regan now joins David Stockman and Alexander Haig and Michael Deaver and Larry Speakes on the list of once-assumed Reagan loyalists who have written books discomforting to the man they pledged to serve.

As she mulls over the pages they have penned, Nancy Reagan may yet get the last laugh. She is writing her own White House memoirs. The critical books may have ensured that when hers hits the bookstores it may enjoy the largest readership of all.

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