Peyton Place on the Potomac

April 15, 1991

Sure, we're a little ashamed of our prurient fascination with the latest gossip about Nancy Reagan, but, hey, there are two serious points here. On the evidence of Kitty Kelley's unauthorized hatchet job: (1) The Reagans were hypocrites, presuming to stand for family virtues even as they turned the White House into Peyton Place on the Potomac, and (2) Mrs. Reagan's "petticoat presidency" usurped the powers of the man we elected.

So what else is new?

The stuff about Frank Sinatra is interesting, though based on innuendo. The story about Cameron's teddy bear is poignant. (The 3-year-old left it in the White House, and Grandma Reagan gift-wrapped it and mailed it back to him months later as a birthday present.) Suspicions about Mr. Reagan's lustrous hair may be well founded.

Practically everything else we already knew: the dabbling in astrology, the actor president's intermittent lapses from character, the Reagans' estrangement from their children, even that Mrs. Reagan is disliked by some associates and employees. Patti Davis' and Donald Regan's books, and even Mrs. Reagan's own autobiography, have dished most of the dirt already. Two new biographies proclaim Mr. Reagan's supposed detachment from responsibilities: Haynes Johnson's "Sleepwalking through History," and Lou Cannon's "President Reagan: the Role of a Lifetime."

Yet we elected, then re-elected Ronald Reagan. Many Reagan-haters seem to think this happened by accident or chicanery, because voters were deluded by campaign trickery -- or simply inattentive. For such people the Kelley screed offers one last hope that Americans will now smite their foreheads in dismay at their own folly.

The latest Kennedy headlines prove neither party has a monopoly on scandal. When a helmeted Michael Dukakis test-drives a tank, voters recognize neither party has a monopoly on image-mongering, either. Americans chose Mr. Reagan for being at least hypocrite enough to pay lip service to long-neglected values -- love of family and country, self-reliance and integrity. It's a pity folks sell their votes for so paltry a pottage, but until Democrats understand this, they will have to get their solace from gutter biographies. And the nation will continue to have a one-party presidency.

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