Out of place in the ruling circle: the sagas of Regan and North

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For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington, by Donald T. Regan. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 397 pp. $21.95. Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North, by Ben Bradlee Jr. New York: Donald I. Fine. 572 pp. $21.95.

Washington is the capital of paradoxes.

There is the grand, consciously historical central city, whose boulevards, government buildings, and monuments underline the American self-image: majestic and proud. Then there is the cutthroat, superficial Washington of yesterday's promotion, today's conference, and tomorrow's audience with the president. (There is also, of course, the city of thoughtful career officials, but they function invisibly.)

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These books demonstrate - unwittingly - what happens when the historically minded city is superseded by its unthinking rival, and political neophytes like Donald Regan and Oliver North are given their head.

Consider Regan's ``For the Record,'' which mixes a straightforward (and sometimes poignant) account of growing up ambitious and hardworking in Boston and Cambridge with a quick skim of his years in the Reagan administration, most notably his side of the Iran-contra affair.

A proud man whose highly successful career was badly stained by that affair, Regan is making his case for posterity, while settling accounts with White House insiders, the Washington establishment in general, and Nancy Reagan above all. So don't expect accuracy or objective judgments; Regan is bitter about the humiliation of his final months in office. The key question lies elsewhere: How could Donald Regan, a former combat marine for whom men are men, women belong in the home, and orders must be obeyed unquestioningly have become White House chief of staff?

A similar question applies to Oliver North, who emerges in this informative but overlong and clumsily written biography by Ben Bradlee Jr. as another fish out of water. Bradlee has cashed in on the headlines with an instant book, and this extracts its costs: crude phrasing, rambling interviews, too many typos and factual errors, and a lack of nuance and insight. Bradlee is far less interested in what made Ollie run - and run out of control - than in rehashing the Iran-contra affair, which occupies fully two-thirds of the text.

A caveat on sources. North and his family refused all cooperation. So Bradlee's account of North's tenure on the National Security Council, from 1981 until he was fired in November 1986, relies heavily on interviews with Fawn Hall, Robert McFarlane, and Richard Secord, whose readiness to see foreign policy in the narrowest way, as merely a series of projects and actions, hardly makes them the wisest or best observers.

Nevertheless, Bradlee illuminates some of the shadowy corners in the North saga. Here is Ollie, not merely as a charming fibber and fabulist, but as a very dubious and slippery character indeed. While at the Naval Academy in 1968, North may have - the evidence is vague - changed the medical record of a knee injury that might have blocked his commission. He may also have persuaded another officer to ``sanitize'' his medical file early in 1975, after North had been hospitalized for ``emotional distress.''

Of course, there is the storytelling, the tales of combat in El Salvador, of his front-line role in the Manichaean struggle with communism, and of his relations with the great and near-great.

Like General MacArthur, North apparently saw ``patriotism'' as excusing such transgressions and truth as a very elastic ideal. North's much-touted patriotism appears, in fact, as a curiously empty, almost formulaic notion.

If these fairly pedestrian books provide little new for anyone who follows the news, the subtexts offer rich pickings to novelists (Gore Vidal? Ward Just?), political scientists, or others interested in the interaction of personality and politics in Washington. For here are two nonheroes, remarkably thoughtless and narrow men, skilled at bludgeoning their way upward but political innocents at heart, devoid of curiosity or insight, and far out of place in the ruling circle of a global superpower. (The accounts of North's negotiations with the Iranians are, for example, simply embarrassing.)

Of ideas or factual knowledge there is little evidence; simplicity reigns. For Donald Regan, government spending is bad, clear lines of authority - leading to him - are good, and Nancy Reagan should stick to her knitting. For Oliver North, communism is bad, bureaucrats hardly less so, Bill Casey is the gutsiest guy in town, and the President wants those hostages freed, no matter what. Regan at least read the papers, even though he loathed them. North didn't trouble himself; this man of small-town America and Marine garrisons cared little about the big picture. Besides, he was always busy with 16-hour days.

Of networking, conciliation, consensus-building, there is not a hint: Why bother with Katharine Graham or Robert Strauss (whom Regan says Nancy Reagan fawned on), when the President has trashed them in the elections? There was, instead, macho confrontationalism.

Though North delighted many right-wing true believers from middle America, this Peck's Bad Boy rubbed many insiders the wrong way - and was proud of it! ``Young man, you'd better watch your step,'' was the warning North openly repeated after a disagreement with Adm. William J. Crowe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Crowe denies it all). But North was happy and confident: The President loved him.

Ronald Reagan is, of course, the Great Unknown in both books, hovering genially above the cut-and-thrust of daily politics, filled with jokes and stories, but - somehow - not quite there. Donald Regan mentions him constantly, but also fleetingly, in a bemused way, as an actor who knew the right lines for each occasion but reserved his deeper feelings for his wife and a favored few. For Oliver North, he was the latest in a list of cheerful father figures who compensated for the stern, cold father of his childhood.

Both men looked to Ronald Reagan, but Ronald Reagan didn't look back.

Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

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