Of all the fictions perpetrated in American politics, perhap one of the most absurd is that first ladies have no power. They might occasionally weigh in on personnel issues, the nation is assured, but they would never meddle in policy.
But a new book, "Nancy Reagan, the Unauthorized Biography," by Kitty Kelley, could forever shatter that myth and add allegations of scandalous sexual behavior to the folklore of the Reagan era.
Beyond the adoring gaze, Ms. Kelley asserts, Nancy Reagan, or "Mrs. President," as her staffers called her, ruled the White House with a Gucci-clad fist.
When former President Ronald Reagan was given his agenda for his first meeting in Geneva with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Ms. Kelley recounts, he asked his aides, "Have you shown this to Nancy?"
"No, sir," they replied.
"Well, get back to me after she's passed on it," he told them.
The new biography also offers sensational claims that the Reagans practiced a morality very different from what they preached. The book was printed under conditions of extraordinary secrecy by the publisher, Simon & Schuster. The New York Times obtained an early copy of the book, which will appear in stores across the country tomorrow.
If the 1980s will be remembered as the decade of excess, Ms. Kelley asserts, Mrs. Reagan will go down in history as the cold and glittering icon for that morally vacuous era.
The author claims that the former first lady reinvented herself with fabrications about her background, age and family; that she had her nose fixed and her eyes lifted; that both the Reagans indulged in extramarital affairs; and that Mrs. Reagan had a long-term romance and affair with Frank Sinatra.
Ms. Kelley also writes that the Reagans once smoked marijuana provided by Alfred Bloomingdale at a dinner party in the late
1960s, when Reagan was governor of California;
that the former president loved anti-gay and racist humor; and that his wife consulted not one but two astrologers to help pull her husband out of the slump caused by the "malevolent movements of Uranus and Saturn," better known as the Iran-contra scandal.
Ms. Kelley has developed a reputation as a giant-killer for her sensational books about the rich and famous. She wrote that Jacqueline Kennedy had shock treatments; that President John F. Kennedy's retarded sister, Rosemary, had a lobotomy; and that Mr. Sinatra's mother was a New Jersey abortionist.
Although Mr. Sinatra early on threatened Ms. Kelley with lawsuits Bantam Books was able to publish her book on him without a real legal challenge.
Ms. Kelley, 48, says the book on Nancy Reagan is based on 1,002 interviews with estranged family members, alienated former staff members and Reagan friends and loyalists.
Mrs. Reagan has decided to keep a low profile, so as not to give the book more publicity, and friends who have talked to her over
the weekend said she seemed unconcerned by the
storm of interest in it.
Sheila Tate, her press secretary in the White House, said yesterday that "no friend of Nancy Reagan's is going to read that scummy book."
In Washington, the salacious details of the new book have been the subject of intense speculation at dinner parties for months. Reagan confidants have whispered their fears that the biography will puncture what remains of the Reagan myth in a manner that will prove devastating for the former president and his wife.
The Reagans themselves have professed a lack of interest in the book, saying that they will not even bother to read it.
The biography is not the first unflattering portrait of the Reagans. In his memoir, "For the Record," Donald T. Regan, the former White House chief of staff, drew a similar portrait of a first lady dominating her passive husband and a White House schedule determined by astrological charts.
And the Reagans' daughter, Patti Davis, portrayed her parents in a bad light in her autobiographical novel, "Home Front."
The book is unlikely to help the Reagans in their desperate crusade to improve an image that was badly tarnished when Mr. Reagan accepted a $2 million speaking tour in Japan after
leaving the White House and when Mrs. Reagan abandoned her support of Phoenix House, a drug-rehabilitation program for teen-agers.
The White House staff desperately tried to soft-pedal Mrs. Reagan's vanities, her love of clothes and jewels and celebrities and royalty and power plays, and portray her as a compassionate Lady Bountiful in the manner of Eleanor Roosevelt, the book relates.
But, in Ms. Kelley's scalding portrait, Mrs. Reagan comes across as an unfortunate combination of the free-spending Mary Todd Lincoln and the power-crazed Edith Wilson.
The picture of an American political family falling apart, over and over and over, of a president and first lady who proselytized about family values but often went for long stretches feuding with or ignoring family members, is both poignant and withering.