A discomfited White House - and the Republican Party - wrestle with how to contain the potential damage done to the Reagan presidency by former White House chief of staff Donald Regan. The American public has grown accustomed to hearing about the President's passivity and inattentiveness in office and Nancy Reagan's dabblings in astrology. But, political observers say, the embarrassing details described by Mr. Regan in his just-published book, ``For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington,'' could have some resonance in the presidential race.
``The real concern has to be the possible consequences on George Bush and the extent to which he has linked himself with the Reagan administration,'' says Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization. ``People are divided about the Reagan presidency, and this could be one thing that shifts the balance from 50-50 to 49-51.''
Mr. Kohut says the electorate is generally lethargic and shows a tendency to stick with the incumbent in the Oval Office. ``This could undermine that lethargy,'' he says. ``If people accept the [Regan] allegations, that may provide an impetus to take a risk for change.''
Kevin Phillips, a conservative analyst long critical of the Reagan administration, suggests that the Regan book further undermines the view that Ronald Reagan has restored luster and credibility to the American presidency. ``The Iran-contra affair, the decline of US influence, astrology - all these prove the view to be pretty ephemeral,'' Mr. Phillips says. ``There were analyses in '84 that Reagan would be ranked in the second tier of US presidents. The question now is whether he's going to be in a respectable third tier.''
Mr. Phillips says Bush may get hurt by a further diminishing of the Reagan administration. But other analysts say the storm will have blown over by the time the election campaign moves into high gear.
Bush campaign officials say they are not worried, stressing that the vice-president is campaigning on the economic and other achievements of the Reagan presidency. ``This sensational story has nothing to do with Bush,'' says Bush campaign spokesman Peter Teeley. ``The Democrats will raise this because they don't have a lot of other issues to raise, especially on the economy. So they will talk about sensational issues rather than substance.''
Presidential scholars say the Regan book, though it seems motivated by a desire to settle scores after his ouster from the White House, contains material that adds to the perception of the President as disengaged from day-to-day management of affairs and overly influenced by his wife as well as close aides.
``I don't think there's enough serious market for astrology for there to be particular sympathy [for Reagan],'' says Fred Greenstein, a Princeton biographer of Dwight Eisenhower. ``Coming just before the summit, it makes him look flaky - and that, added to an image of lack of attention, which has not hurt him in the past - is damaging. It makes him susceptible to derision.''
Among many politically embarrassing statements is Regan's assertion about his tenure as secretary of the Treasury: ``I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy or fiscal and monetary policy with him one on one,'' Regan writes. ``From first day to last at Treasury, I was flying by the seat of my pants.''
The Regan book has been greeted in Washington with emotions ranging from outrage and disgust to fascination and glee. Reagan friends and supporters are incensed at what they regard as the disloyalty of a former top aide.
``Regan is demonstrating that he is a petty, small man and so arrogant and egotistical about his standing that he cannot help spew out his venom,'' says James Lake, a former Reagan campaign official.
The White House yesterday denounced Regan's book as an attempt to exploit the presidency and said Regan was motived by personal self-interest.
Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater also told reporters that Mrs. Reagan was ``very upset'' at Regan's assertions that she ran a ``shadowy distaff presidency,'' dictating scheduling and travel decisions after consulting an astrologer.
Political analysts as well as former public officials upbraid Regan for embarrassing a President whom he served. Authors of such ``kiss and tell'' books (there have been an unusual number in the Reagan years) are regarded by many as self-seeking and disloyal.
To many Washington observers, the latest ``kiss and tell'' memoir, as well as White House reluctance to dismiss Attorney General Edwin Meese III, reinforces the growing perception that the Reagan administration is lacking in propriety and ethical stature.
``That loyal followers would consider this is the way to do things demeans public service,'' a senior administration official says.
Regan himself staunchly defends publication of his book before the end of the Reagan administration. ``I did not choose the time I left the administration,'' he said in an interview. ``That was set for me by the First Lady and the cabal around her that waged an insidious campaign to get me out.''
Answering the charge of disloyalty to the President, Regan said he learned in the Marines that if you expect loyalty from those below you, ``you had better give loyalty to them. I'm not sure I got loyal treatment from the President and especially from his wife, while I was chief of staff.''
The sharpest passages in the Regan memoir are reserved for the First Lady.
According to ``For the Record,'' Mrs. Reagan's reliance on astrology - termed the most closely guarded domestic secret of the Reagan White House - affected scheduling of events, including meetings between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. It also contributed to Reagan's isolation as the Iran-contra affair unraveled.
Regan did not identify the astrologer, but Time magazine says she is San Francisco socialite Joan Quigley, who has written several books on astrology.