Looking Back: White House Chief of Staff Gets Fired, Fights Back in Print

By Jack Limpert

By the time Donald Regan came to Washington as Secretary of the Treasury, he had fought and won a lot of battles. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was a student at Harvard Law School; he joined the Marines, fought in five major campaigns in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal and Okinawa, and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he went to work for Merrill Lynch and by 1971 he was running the big investment firm.

In 1981 he moved from New York to DC to be Treasury Secretary under newly-elected President Ronald Reagan. He pushed Reaganomics—cutting taxes to boost the economy—through Congress and became one of the most powerful men in Washington. Then in 1985 he swapped jobs with White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker, making Regan part of President Reagan’s inner circle.

But after two years as White House Chief of Staff, Regan was pushed out with the President’s wife, Nancy Reagan, cast as the ringleader of the group that forced him to leave DC and return to New York. He was there in 1989 when President Reagan left office and Nancy was about to publish My Turn, her autobiography.

Howard Means, one of the Washingtonian’s senior editors, suggested we ask Donald Regan to review Nancy Reagan’s book. So I wrote to Regan: “As you are probably aware, Nancy Reagan’s memoir, My Turn, is scheduled for publication by Random House in late October. We would very much like for you to review the book for us. Please note that by ‘review’ I don’t mean a literary analysis; rather, we’d like to give you the space to react to Mrs. Reagan’s memoirs in whatever fashion you think would offer our readers the most insight.”

Regan’s office called to say that he’d be in Washington the following week and he could have lunch with us at the Army-Navy Club near the White House. Howard and I met him there, enjoyed a pleasant lunch, and talked about the kind of review he might write. He seemed willing, and I told him that for a review of about 2,000 words we’d normally pay $1,000 but because of his name we’d be willing to pay him $2,000.

He took a sip of coffee and said, “Can you add ten percent to that?”

Howard and I looked at one another and I said, “Okay.”

On the way back to the magazine, Howard and I tried to absorb the fact that one of the richest men in America, maybe the richest ever to write for the magazine, got an extra $200 for a magazine story by asking, “Can you add ten percent to that?” Had Regan gone through life trying to get an extra ten percent on any money coming his way? Did he ask the plumber who came to his house if his bill could be reduced by ten percent? Had we discovered the hidden secret to wealth?

Then came the struggle to get a review copy of Nancy Reagan’s book. No advance copies were sent out, and Peter Osnos, Nancy Reagan’s editor, refused to make an exception for us, even though we would be publishing after the launch date. Howard said that Osnos said that Nancy would “go ballistic” if she learned he had cooperated with an effort to get a review copy to Regan. (Osnos later denied saying this.)

So our reviewer, Don Regan, was sitting by his pool in Florida, our deadline was nearing, no review copy was on hand. Then Howard had the idea to see if we could get an audio version of the book. Sure, the Random House PR person said, and FedExed a copy for next morning’s delivery, which we FedExed to Don Regan.

Regan’s review, titled “His Turn,” appeared in the December 1989 Washingtonian and got lots of media attention. It started this way: “The best-kept secret of the Reagan administration, zealously guarded by all the president’s men with the tacit collaboration of most of the media, was not the existence and pervasive influence of the first lady’s astrologer but the haunting suspicion that not too many people loved and admired Nancy Davis Reagan…and vice versa. Now Mrs. Reagan has published a book that tells the whole world why.”
Don Regan died on June 10, 2003, at the age of 84. Ronald Reagan died on June 4, 2004, at the age of 93. Nancy Reagan died on March 6, 2014, at the age of 94.

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