WASHINGTON — Washington. Kitty Kelley, who battens like a leech on the lives of famous people, is a professional retailer of falsehoods. Her remunerative work in the sewers of journalism exploits the fact that public figures can be recklessly written about with impunity.
To prevent a ''chilling effect'' on public discourse, courts have made it almost prohibitively difficult for public figures to defend themselves from even reckless and malicious disregard for the truth. Many public figures have had this experience: An absurd, injurious and easily refutable rumor is reported as fact, and the publisher says, ''Well, we accurately report rumors.'' Nancy Reagan is today's victim.
For the record, I, unlike Ms. Kelley, know Nancy Reagan. Many people, who admire her as I do, refused to cooperate with Ms. Kelley, knowing her to be a journalistic sociopath. So most of her ''sources,'' if they exist, are hostile to her subject.
If one must have enemies, may their malice, crudeness, mendacity and ignorance be as patent as Ms. Kelley's. No one whose opinion matters to a grown-up can read a page of Ms. Kelley's book without disgust with her technique. Here is sample, concerning Nancy in the 1940s:
''One man Nancy saw on a regular basis was Dr. Daniel Ruge, her father's senior assistant at Passavant Hospital, who would one day become Ronald Reagan's White House physician. 'He would call me and ask me to cover for him,' said a resident at Passavant at the time. 'Dan would say, ''I'm going to take Nancy over to the Esquire Theater,'' and he'd sneak out for a couple of hours while I covered the house. What he did with her at that theater I don't know. He was too much of a gentleman ever to tell me, but that was a thing that was hot and heavy in 1945 for at least three months that I knew about.'
''Years later, Dr. Ruge denied any romantic involvement with Nancy Davis, saying, 'I think someone is getting me confused with Clark Gable.'
''A few days before Nancy left for New York she ran into two male friends of her parents and shocked the two married men by her method of saying goodbye.
'' 'Ben and I were walking down East Lake Shore Drive by the Drake Hotel,' said one of the men. 'We had just finished lunch when we saw Nancy, who came running over to us. She said she was leaving town and just wanted to say goodbye. She grabbed DTC first, kissed me hard on the lips and plunged her tongue down my throat. Then she thrust herself at Ben and did the same thing to him.' ''
This tale involves four men. Only one, Dr. Ruge, is identified. He scoffs at inane innuendoes like the one (what did they do at the theater?) of the ''resident at Passavant.'' Why is the resident not identified? Why are ''Ben'' and his talkative friend not identified? Could it be that Ms. Kelley does not want her ''facts'' checked with her ''sources''?
How many decades after the fact -- four? -- did Ben's talkative friend talk, and to whom, concerning his vivid memories about his throat and Nancy's tongue? This episode, like much of the book, reeks of fabrication.
Barbara Bush, pouncing on a Kelley falsehood concerning a gift to Nancy Reagan, denounces the book as ''trash and fiction'' and endorses the description of it as ''scummy.'' Even Ms. Kelley's acknowledgments are absurd. In a list of ''editors, writers and reporters'' who ''took the time to answer questions and share their stories'' -- whatever that means -- there appears the name of the man who runs the mail room in Time magazine's Washington bureau. The list of people who she says helped her is long.
There is a political element to some of the attention this book has received. Ms. Kelley, who has a cash register behind her forehead, is not complicated enough to have political motives. The same cannot be said of the New York Times, which last Sunday presented a front-page story passively recounting many of the book's allegations.
People who sell garbage present no mystery: The morals of the marketplace have many devotees. But what causes so many buyers to take such delight in seeing famous people's names besmirched?
Perhaps it has something to do with the prevalence of envy in a democratic society, the result of the egalitarian impulse gone rancid. Envy is the only one of the seven deadly sins that gives the sinner not even momentary pleasure. But brisk sales of the book testify that some people's lives evidently are so arid they can only be irrigated by lurid gossip.
Today's teen-agers -- at least those who inhabit and filter through my house -- have an apt response to people who take seriously frivolous things. They say, ''Get a life!'' That is good advice for people eager to get this book.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.