Ol' Blue Lips

by Maureen Dowd | May 13, 1991

Kitty Kelley's achievement is extraordinary. She has provided a reason for sympathy with Nancy Reagan. She has taken one of the shrewdest, coldest, most manipulative women in American politics, a woman who broke new ground in spousal power, and transformed her into a victim. Kelley is a mean and greedy writer, so drunk on sensationalism that she lacks compassion and understanding. Her subject was a mean and greedy First Lady, so drunk on power that she lacked compassion and understanding. Both believe that nothing succeeds like excess and pettiness. Both are soap opera vixens who accrued so many enemies in their climb to respectability and riches that the air around them is rancid with revenge.

And yet all the sanctimonious complaining about Kelley's book misses the point. Of course, the book is tawdry. Of course, the book is, in some spots, loosely sourced and over the top. Of course, it is not balanced: it's pie-in-the-face journalism, the literary equivalent of watching the Los Angeles police interrogate a minority suspect. Of course, there are mistakes in it. (It was not Mies van der Rohe who said that God is in the details.) The point, however, is that Kelley's portrait is not essentially untrue. The face is familiar.

And that is more than can be said of more esteemed biographers. Bob Woodward may have been able to document incontrovertibly every line of coke that John Belushi enjoyed, but he was never able to capture the spirit of Belushi, or to explain the allure of drugs. Robert Caro's skills as an investigative reporter inspire awe, yet there is reason to believe that Means of Ascent, the second installment of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, is wrong in the fundamentals of its interpretation. There are the trees and there is the forest. Woodward and Caro produced a blizzard of particulars, but they just didn't get it. The same cannot be said of Kelley, even if she writes recklessly and employs some dubious methods and is promoted hysterically by her publisher.

Nancy Reagan is a wonderful subject for a full-scale biography. Like Barbara Bush, she was, in many ways, a more astute politician than her husband. Unlike Barbara Bush, however, she was great copy, an imperious Roman empress or a bloodthirsty French aristocrat disguised as an adoring American wife. If Kelley's book is not balanced, in other words, it is not because it renders a harsh judgment of its subject. A harsh judgment is what its subject deserves. Nancy Reagan was the epitome of her time, of its pious values and grasping mores; she was den mother to an era of materialistic dementia. Kelley's pen, unfortunately, is a jackhammer, and skips straight to the verdict.

Not without humor, though; her pages on America's first astrological administration, on the important-looking manila envelopes rushed to the East Gate of the White House with pressing and for-eyes-only intelligence on the "malevolent movements'' of Saturn and Uranus, are hilarious. And another significant misimpression of Kelley's work should be immediately corrected. She is not any more salacious in her treatment of her subject (and her subject's husband) than other biographers have been in their treatment of theirs. She does not practice sexual history more than, say, William Manchester did in his life of Winston Churchill, or Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith did in their life of Jackson Pollock. Her unsubtle and unsophisticated book, in fact, broaches subtle and sophisticated questions. How did the Reagans use their power? How were their personal lives at variance with the conservative morality that was at the core of Ronald Reagan's political philosophy and popular appeal? To what extent did they sell the presidency and commercialize the White House? How much political illusion is permissible in a democracy?

As is well known, Barbara Bush has challenged the accuracy of Kelley's anecdote about how she sent the Reagans a Christmas wreath, which Nancy then rewrapped and sent on to one of her California girlfriends. But neither Mrs. Bush nor anybody else who knew or studied Nancy Reagan in the White House can challenge the essentials of Kelley's portrait. Mrs. Bush cannot rise up and defend her predecessor as a sweet, thoughtful individual who was exquisitely alive to the limitations of her place as the wife of a popularly elected official—not least because, as Kelley points out, and as everyone in Washington knew, Nancy Reagan treated Barbara and George Bush like dirt. In eight years Mrs. Reagan never once invited the Bushes to dinner in the family quarters of the White House, not even to reciprocate for their hospitality at the vice president's residence. During the Washington summit of 1987 she did not allow Mrs. Bush to accept Raisa Gorbachev's invitation to tour the National Gallery with her, and on occasion she even instructed Mrs. Bush on what she was to say to the press. She nicknamed Bush "Whiney,'' spread salacious gossip about him, trashed him as spineless to her lunch pals, and persuaded her husband to give him a belated and tepid initial endorsement in 1988.

The contrast between Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Bush is a useful one. When Nancy Reagan came to the White House, she created a furor when she indicated (not for the first time and not for the last) that she had no compunctions about trading on her position. She proudly disclosed, as Kelley notes, that the White House beauty salon had been equipped with thousands of dollars' worth of free furnishings, fabrics, and cosmetics from the beauty industry. Donations for the renovation included a $3,700 Peruvian rug, a $400 salmon-colored Louis XV lounge chair, a $346.65 shampoo bowl with temperature controls, two hair dryers valued at a total of $1,200, a $750 white leather chair, a $230 manicurist's stool, $1,800 worth of red and green glazed chintz draperies and wallcoverings from Clarence House, and $300 worth of lipsticks, eye shadows, creams, and foundations donated by Redken Laboratories.

When Mrs. Bush took over, by contrast, the beauty salon was reduced to a single hair dryer and a single sink and a single mirror, and the rest of the room was used as a home for the box full of newspapers where Millie's puppies were weaned. The message was loud and clear. Her disdain for Kitty Kelley notwithstanding, Barbara Bush must be counted among Nancy Reagan's sharpest critics.

"Trash and fiction,'' Mrs. Bush said of Kelley's book. Trash, maybe; but not fiction. Kelley's books should be read in the spirit in which they are rendered. Just as the Reagans offered a mixture of show business and politics, so Kelley offers a mixture of gossip and biography. The problem with her books is that they fall between the stools. They are neither completely tacky nor completely scholarly. To read them as one would read a tabloid is to miss the instruction that they contain. To read them as one would read a work of history is to risk distorting the record. Kelley's achievement, I guess, is to have honed the bastard genre of biography in the culture of celebrity. She brings to mind Baudelaire's advice to readers of newspapers, that you can learn a great deal from them if you read them with the proper contempt.

Kelley's genre, more specifically, is the "unauthorized biography.'' True, the unauthorized biography runs the risk of certain kinds of errors from which an authorized biography is protected. But authorized lives have their own pitfalls, in plenty. Even (or especially) authorized biographies can be skewed: access distorts as much as the lack of it. Sometimes, by poking around in the garbage of the powerful, the unauthorized biographers merely turn up garbage. Sometimes, however, they turn up sleds that say Rosebud. Kelley's account may be relentless, but it matches the accounts of other chroniclers and memoirists of the Reagan era, such as Peggy Noonan, Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, Donald Regan, Helene von Damm, and Selwa Roosevelt. Indeed, the surprise about Kelley's portrait is how little it surprises. Much of her material is not new. But much of it is true.

There is something splendidly democratic about the "unauthorized biography.'' It is premised on skepticism about the official versions of public lives.Its real theme is hypocrisy, which cannot be established, of course, without an "invasion of privacy.'' About the Reagans, surely, unauthorized biography is amply justified; indeed, it is even a case of just desserts. For Kelley has chosen for her subject an evil genius of authorization, of spin control, of image management, of Madison Avenue-style propaganda. In response to the well-packaged, high-gloss imagery contrived and promoted by the Reagans and their admirers, it is only fitting to have the well-packaged, high-gloss trashing of that imagery by Kelley. The spinners are being unspun.

It is important to remember, moreover, that for the duration of their Washington reign, until it came to a thudding halt on the afternoon that Edwin Meese announced that money from the sale of arms to Iran had been diverted to the contras, the Reagans were treated with kid gloves, not least by the press corps that covered them. Exhibit A of the journalistic delinquency of those dizzy years, when it was morning in America and Washington was a city of flatterers and flacks, must be First Lady, A Portrait of Nancy Reagan, a glossy picture book that appeared in 1986 under the name of Chris Wallace, who is, please recall, a journalist. "The reason she looks adoringly at her husband is because she adores him,'' reads the caption above a picture of the Reagans, wearing red sweaters and sitting with their TV trays. And there are the testimonials: "Nancy's anything but frivolous. She's very level-headed, she's very sincere, she's very down to earth, and why she seemed frivolous I don't know'' (Bonita Granville Wrather); "Nancy Reagan has a terrific sense of humor, a terrific sense of style, is very giving, and is very tuned in to the world around her'' (Charles Z. Wick); "She's one of the most special people that I've ever known in the world'' (Michael Deaver); and so on.

The Reagans churned out their own biographies of themselves, or of what they imagined themselves to be. Ronald Reagan's good-natured and gauzy An American Life set the historical record back significantly. The man who ignored civil rights groups and implied that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Communist earnestly assured readers that he grew up in a home where there was "no more grievous sin'' than racial bigotry. It was left to Kelley to point out what many in Washington knew, that Reagan loved ethnic and gay jokes, even jokes about AIDS.

In My Turn, a book animated by vindictiveness and written to settle scores, Nancy Reagan portrayed her daughter Patti as an insensitive child for failing to show up for her grandmother's funeral. It was left to Kelley to correct and unprettify the self-portrait, to reveal that Nancy did not go to her paternal grandmother's funeral, much to her family's dismay, or even to her father's, since she had excised both of them from her life many years before their deaths. Patti Davis recently confirmed one of Kelley's most chilling anecdotes, that as a little girl she was beaten in the face by her mother with a hairbrush.

Straining to be kind and to win the sort of parental love that she always craved, Maureen Reagan produced her own harrowing memoir of self-delusion, punctuated by unwittingly devastating anecdotes about how cold and remote her father and stepmother could be. Michael Reagan added to the frightening family lore. And Patti Davis, still one of the walking wounded, is working on a third novel about a woman "deeply affected by a psychologically domineering mother.'' If the parent is to be known by the children, it may be that Kelley's book is not cruel enough.

I had my own experiences reporting on Morticia Addams, I mean Nancy Reagan, sporadically over the past decade; and on the basis of those experiences it is hard for me to work up much sympathy for her, because the portrait that she peddled to the public then was even more unbalanced than the one that Kelley is peddling now. I remember a campaign swing through the South in 1984, the President and the First Lady trumpeting family values, when I asked Mrs. Reagan about the public complaints of her stepson, Michael Reagan, that his father and his stepmother had not invited him to the White House, that they had not seen their grandson Cameron in years, that they had never seen their granddaughter Ashley. I was immediately met with Nancy Reagan's best move, with that look that could melt buildings, as one of her aides put it. "Well, of course, Cameron was there for the inauguration,'' she replied, referring to the inauguration four years before. "And the little girl is only a year old.'' Any suggestion that she and Ronnie neglected their grandchildren or fought with their children would be totally wrong. We have since learned otherwise.

If you ever watched Nancy Reagan in front of the cameras hugging a scruffy young adult who was telling her about a drug problem (one of her staff's vain attempts, abetted by First Astrologer Joan Quigley, to replace Nancy's image as "the Hairdo with Anxiety'' with the munificent contours of Lady Bountiful), you knew that she was pining for Le Cirque. She did what she had to do to silence the criticism that she had none of a First Lady's social concerns, or rather concerns about American society; but you could almost hear the gritting of her teeth. She was like the aristocrat in the old joke who instructed his butler to remove a beggar from the premises because the beggar was breaking his heart. But she could spend hours making the White House chef perfect a dessert for Prince Charles, so that the brown sugar feathers on the ice cream crown looked exactly like the British royal insignia.

Talking to Kelley, Shirley Watkins, one of Mrs. Reagan's secretaries, confirms this impression of contrived compassion:

She didn't care, and we could not always manufacture a caring attitude for her because she would not take the time to be that kind of First Lady. Mothers desperate about their children on drugs would call and ask if Mrs. Reagan would send them a letter or make a phone call to encourage them. I tried once to get her to make that kind of phone call and almost got fired for "bothering'' her. She had been on the phone with Betsy Bloomingdale.

It was clear to all of us professional Nancy-watchers that she did not like to be around people with physical imperfections. Watkins said that she once asked Jack Courtmanche, who became Mrs. Reagan's chief of staff in 1986, if Mrs. Reagan could make time to meet a boy dying of muscular dystrophy who had written the White House that his dying wish was to meet the First Lady. "And he said, `Absolutely not. The First Lady doesn't want her picture taken with some drooly kid on a respirator. It's too disgusting.' ''

John Sears, the Reagan campaign manager in 1976, told Kelley that both the Reagans were obsessed with illusions and appearances. "It wasn't just Nancy,'' Sears said. "Reagan himself insisted on always looking good. That was his first priority. He wouldn't do something unless he looked good doing it, and Nancy aided and abetted him in this obsession. In that way, they reinforced each other.'' If the lie looked better, go with the lie. And so Nancy Reagan did, on everything from big lies, like "borrowing'' a million dollars' worth of designer dresses when she knew it was a tax violation, to little lies, like pretending that Reagan didn't dye his hair or take naps.

The hypocrisies were spectacular. She relentlessly pursued Jacqueline Onassis, even though the Reagans were so anti-Kennedy in the early 1960s that they had refused to cancel a cocktail party two nights after John Kennedy was assassinated, and Nancy had ordered her guests not to talk about "you know what.'' Nancy Davis had struggled for ten years in New York and Hollywood to become a famous actress, and had aggressively pursued television parts and commercials in the 1960s; but because Nancy Reagan did not want to seem ambitious when she played the politician's devoted wife, she dismissed her career as "nothing more than a stopgap'' and denounced "silly women's libbers'' who fought for equal rights. She denounced homosexuality as a "sickness'' and declared that she could not vote for homosexuals for public office because they would not be emotionally "strong,'' but she surrounded herself with lunching gay men like Jerome Zipkin and Truman Capote.

Her obsession with appearance, and her world-class stinginess, led her to sell the prestige of her husband's office to the highest bidder. Consider only one of many examples of her high-placed grasping. After the 1980 election, the Gucci shop in Beverly Hills closed down for two hours to all other customers so that its owners could do for the First Lady-elect what the owners of a Rodeo Drive boutique did for Richard Gere when he wished to spend obscenely in Pretty Woman. As Carlo Celoni, the manager, told Kelley: "She refused to take the things free after the White House. She said she had to take them all before the inauguration. Up to that time, we would give her everything gratis. I was invited to both inaugurations.'' Celoni's itemization of Mrs. Reagan's haul is a primary document of the decade:

When she came in after the presidential election, I gave her a black silk egg purse ($600), a miniature beige calf bag with bamboo handle—style 0633—the $650 one that Jackie Onassis made famous in America, so of course, it was a favorite of Nancy's, too—plus a dressy daytime black lizard bag ($650), and a white evening bag accented with our double G ($850) to go with the white Galanos gown she planned to wear to the inaugural balls.

And it didn't end there: After presenting the purses, Celoni summoned his assistant, Ellen Pollon, to bring in the clothes,'' Kelley writes:

a herringbone topcoat with a plush leather collar ($1,500), a silk afternoon dress in fuchsia and gold with a gold belt and matching shoes ($2,000), a two-piece multicolored silk dress ($575), several gabardine skirts ($350 apiece) and matching silk blouses ($350 apiece), a black and gold silk blouse ($350), a leather jacket ($1,000), seven ties for Ronald Reagan ($35 apiece), several pairs of women's shoes ($200 a piece), and a pair of white satin pumps decorated with rhinestones to wear to the inaugural ball ($350).

The public furor notwithstanding, Nancy Reagan never grasped why her constant bartering of the presidency was wrong. Very late in the game she was still taking millions for her drug fund from Middle Eastern potentates and businessmen trying to curry favor with the United States on arms deals and other Middle Eastern matters.

She led a very angry life. She was always trying to "get'' people or fire people or banish people or punish people. When she heard Geraldine Ferraro defending her position on abortion by charging that Reagan had no right to call himself a "good Christian'' because his policies were "terribly unfair'' and ``discriminatory,'' Nancy swung into action. An aide to Stuart Spencer told Kelley: "Within seconds, the First Lady, who was watching Ferraro on television, was on the phone to Spencer. `I want you to get that woman any way you can,' she said. `You get her! Do you hear me?' Spencer hung up and turned to his aide. `What've ya got on Ferraro? Let's get going. We've got a customer.' '' Spencer's aide said that they leaked the story to the New York Post that Ferraro's father had once been arrested for numbers running. (In the event, of course, dirty tricks against Ferraro were not merely wrong, they were also redundant.)

Kelley's critics are pointing to her own zeal to "get'' Nancy Reagan by loosing the allegation that the First Lady and Frank Sinatra had, as The Washington Times reported with horror, "geriatric sex in the White House.'' (There is a sense, of course, in which such an allegation casts its figures in a flattering light. Do not go gentle into that good night.) Kelley writes that Nancy Reagan's crush on the singer began when she was First Lady of California, long before she learned that he had referred to her at the beginning of her husband's tenure as governor as "a dope with fat ankles.'' "The flirtation continued for months, but no one took it seriously until Sinatra flew to Chicago and Nancy followed him a few days later.Her top aide later admitted making private arrangements for her, ostensibly to visit her parents when she was actually with Sinatra in his suite at the Ambassador East,'' Kelley writes. "The affair, which continued for years, was not out of character for Sinatra, who was unmarried at the time. He was accustomed to taking the wives of his friends for his own pleasure.''

The top aide is not identified. Kelley proceeds to tell of private White House "lunches'' between the singer and his admirer; and those quotation marks have become the most controversial typography in recent memory. Some pundits have complained that the item is unsubstantiated titillation. I agree that the case is not clinched (though Kelley's portrait of Nancy Reagan hardly stands or falls on this indelicate detail). In The Washington Post, Richard Cohen argued piously that the private lives of public figures should only be written about when it is "unavoidable.'' Thus, "Presidents should not sleep with women connected with the Mafia.'' Well, exactly. Why is an unprecedentedly powerful First Lady's close, flirtatious relationship, sex or no sex, with a singer with Mafia connections significantly less newsworthy than John Kennedy's relationship with Sam Giancana's Judith Exner? Both Nancy Reagan and John Kennedy shared confidences with their Mafia-connected friends, and both used them for White House business.

It was in My Way, her unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra, and a brave and careful book, that Kelley established the link between Nancy's singing friend and the mob. The praise that Kelley won for My Way was deserved; and by the standards of that book its successor is a disappointment. Many of Kelley's anecdotes about Nancy Reagan seem skewed and open to challenge. She might have written more about Mrs. Reagan's positive points: her political shrewdness, her utility as a hatchetwoman for her personable husband, her tempering of some of his more Neanderthal tendencies. And she might have written more than only anecdotally. She might have aspired, for example, to a more complete psychological portrait, and explained the vast insecurities and even vaster ambitions that made Nancy Reagan measure the whole world solely according to her own and her husband's appearances.

In his comprehensive new book on Reagan (also published by Simon & Schuster, which should win some sort of prize for Reagan-profiteering), Lou Cannon takes a more sympathetic view of the former First Lady (to whom he was given access). "The popular impression,'' he writes, "is that the Reagans are so close that they drive everyone else out, even the children. That may be unfair to Nancy Reagan. Her presence gives others an excuse for not being able to get beyond a barrier that was built long before she came into his life.'' And she did send a letter to Kitty Dukakis when she revealed her problems with drugs and alcohol; and she did drop a note to a Washington reporter who learned that she had breast cancer, and even gave her a scoop; and she was kind to the beleaguered Quayles when they arrived in Washington.

After a decade of watching this woman, I will concede that there aren't too many other such examples of kindness displayed outside of the context of a public relations campaign. Still, balance would have strengthened Kelley's picture, not weakened it. Of course part of the vitriolic reaction to Kelley's book originates not in sympathy for Nancy Reagan, but in, well, embarrassment. For the trouble with Ronald and Nancy Reagan between 1980 and 1988 was there for all with eyes to see. Kelley's book is rudely reminding many people that they preferred to avert their gaze. It is a taxing book, I imagine, for the people who praised the Reagans or covered them, who were complicitous with the hype and the illusion, with the condition that Garry Wills called the country's "collective suspension of disbelief.'' It is not pleasant, after all, to look back at that materialism and elitism and remember that we called it virtue and style. The American people twice demanded overwhelmingly that the Reagans inhabit the White House; and this is a free country. But in a free country you not only get Nancy Reagan, you also get Kitty Kelley.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

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