SEVERELY critical things have been said about Nancy Reagan's role in the recent changes at the White House. The most critical was the charge, by William Safire in the New York Times, of ``presuming to control the actions of the Executive Branch.'' Mr. Safire pointed out, accurately, that Mrs. Reagan is ``unelected and unaccountable.'' He compared her behavior to that of Edith Wilson during the twilight of Woodrow Wilson's presidency.
First, exactly what did Nancy Reagan do?
She helped to persuade the President to replace Don Regan as White House chief of staff and thus clear the way for the appointment of Howard Baker Jr. to that position.
There is no question that she did play a role in this transition. The published version is that she applied both direct and indirect persuasion on her husband in the process. No one has denied the essential facts of the published stories.
The question is whether it is improper for the wife of a president to try to influence his choice of members of his staff at the White House.
Let us dismiss the idea that this case is comparable to the case of Edith Wilson. President Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke. He was an invalid, in bed. Leaders of Congress would come to the White House for guidance and opinion. On occasion they were allowed to see the President. On other occasions, Mrs. Wilson took their questions, and returned with answers. To this day no one knows to what extent those answers were framed by Mrs. Wilson or relayed by her from the President.
Did Mrs. Wilson actually act as president?
The answer is uncertain.
Mrs. Reagan's role is unlike the Wilson case in every respect. She never for a second purported to represent the President's wishes to others. Her role was to help him realize that his presidency was in deep trouble and that a first essential curative step would be the remaking of his White House staff.
In doing this she was not trying to influence Congress, or make policy. She was putting her influence alongside the wishes of the leadership of the Congress and of the Republican Party.
Her influence was not decisive. The change had to come. The Congress and the party had lost confidence in Mr. Regan. There was no possibility of rebuilding a satisfactory working relationship between Congress and White House until Regan had been replaced by a person who could enjoy the confidence of the Congress. The only question was how soon the change would come.
The weight of Mrs. Reagan's influence, when added to that of the leaders of the party and Congress, produced a quicker result than would otherwise have been the case. She probably speeded the transition by a week or more. Ronald Reagan can be stubborn. And Nancy Reagan can be persistent in pursuit of her husband's welfare. Nancy Reagan speeded the inevitable change and helped enable the healing process to begin. And why not?
All presidents are prisoners of the White House. They are surrounded by people who like to please them. They too often get from their official aides, assistants, and advisers what those people think the President wants to hear. Presidents have little contact with unwelcome outside opinion.
The wife of a president has easier access to the outside world. Nancy Reagan is sensitive to outside opinion. She was aware long before he was that his presidency was in trouble. She acted to save his presidency.
The first four Reagan years when James Baker III was White House chief of staff were remarkably successful. The two years of Don Regan's stewardship ended in political disaster. From the moment Howard Baker took over, things changed for the better. Insofar as Nancy Reagan is responsible for the transformation she should be praised, not blamed, for doing what any loyal wife would do under similar circumstances.