A Gossip Party in Print
Confessions of a bored Nancy Reagan biography reader
PERHAPS I am the only person alive who found Kitty Kelley's book on Nancy Reagan difficult reading, simply because it was so boring. Maybe I had read enough reviews to have already known about the so-called "good stuff" - the titillating passages that apparently left many readers breathlessly wondering: Did she or didn't she?
Have you ever sat in the room where everyone is talking disapprovingly about someone? After a while you wish you had never come to this gossip party. Yet in a way you are afraid to leave - lest you become the next victim of the ridicule.
That's how I feel about the Kelley book. It's a gossip party in print.
Much of it may be true. Nancy Reagan may be the unattractive person Ms. Kelley portrays. But I covered the Reagan White House closely for years and never observed this side of Mrs. Reagan.
Oh, I heard about the way she used her influence to get beautiful gowns for nothing. And I was on the stage of the annual journalists' Gridiron show when she kidded herself about this - and helped her image no end - by dressing up in old togs and singing "Second Hand Clothes" to the tune of "Second Hand Rose."
Doubtless one reason Mrs. Reagan took on the war against drugs was to improve her image.
But ever since Eleanor Roosevelt stopped just playing second fiddle to her husband and worked valiantly for blacks, first ladies have been expected to have some kind of a cause.
The beautifying of Washington was Lady Bird Johnson's project, and I thank her every time I walk through Lafayette Park and enjoy the flowers she had planted there.
Barbara Bush is a strong advocate for literacy.
Mrs. Reagan's "Just Say No to Drugs" is regarded by many of her critics, including Kelley, as superficial, reflecting a less-than-genuine interest in getting the job done. Yet Mrs. Reagan lent her name and her voice to the fight against drugs; that, of itself, was not a little thing.
I may be sounding like a defender of Mrs. Reagan. Not so. It's just that I tend to stand up for someone who is getting unmercifully kicked around - and I'm sure there are lots of others like me.
I found Mrs. Reagan's reliance on astrology while in the White House offensive. Indeed, Kelley details the many times when the presidential scheduling of trips and important conferences were dictated by the first lady's astrologer. To me, this is both unacceptable and frightening.
I recall an interview with presidential candidate Reagan back in 1980. I asked Mr. Reagan about the rumors floating around that astrology was used to help plan his campaign. He simply laughed the question off. He said that he and Nancy looked at the astrological charts of a friend of theirs that appeared in a newspaper. But he said that it was "just for fun."
Just for fun?
Donald Regan has disclosed how as the president's chief of staff he was "stunned" to discover this astrological dependency of Mrs. Reagan's and its control of presidential scheduling.
Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley provides a useful reminder of what a biography should be:
"Until fairly recently, biography was thought of as a literary form, and was expected to adhere to literary standards: to be written with grace, to explore its subject's life and mind with objectivity and humane sympathy, to place that subject in historical and cultural context and - yes, of course - to be as factually accurate as the evidence permitted."
Yardley says a new "journalistic" biography has now emerged which he believes "exists not to explain and understand but to eviscerate and exploit, and its methods have less to do with literature than with guerrilla warfare."
Kelley cites endless sources, but one suspects most of them are hostile and have axes to grind.
Yet this author is a digger, and she amasses evidence in a persuasive way.
Still, I soon become bone-weary - yes, bored - at the way this book relentlessly tears Mrs. Reagan apart, whether she deserved it or not.
This is not a book for everyone. It certainly wasn't a book for me.