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Reagan's image has tarnished since he retired

Published Oct. 16, 2005

The cameras will roll again for Ronald Reagan on Friday. This time the scene will be a Los Angeles courtroom. Reagan, a former movie actor, will be working without a script as he gives sworn testimony in the last legal act of the Iran-Contra affair, the biggest scandal of his eight-year presidency.

Attorneys for John Poindexter, Reagan's former national security adviser and the last of the Iran-Contra defendants to go to trial, wanted Reagan to come to Washington to give his deposition. Reagan asked to do it in his Los Angeles office. In deference to Reagan's status as a former president, U.S. District Judge Harold Greene decided that Reagan's testimony could be videotaped in a Los Angeles courtroom that will be closed to the public and the press.

Reagan's testimony, which is expected to provide the first detailed explanation of his role in the Iran-Contra affair, will be aired in Poindexter's criminal trial, which is set to begin in Washington on March 5.

His involuntary role as Poindexter's star witness is only the latest reminder of how Reagan's life has changed since he left office 13 months ago and turned over the presidency to George Bush, his loyal vice president who for eight years suffered by comparison to the Great Communicator.

Now it is Reagan who suffers by comparison. Where Reagan was known as a passive, hands-off manager who relied heavily on index cards and a TelePrompTer, Bush comes across as a vigorous, accessible and spontaneous chief executive who knows what's going on in his administration.

Bush can't forget that he probably would not be president had Reagan not chosen him as his vice president and then anointed him as his successor. Despite Bush's gratitude and their warm relationship, the two don't talk that often. Bush is said to spend more time on the telephone with former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter than with Reagan.

Reagan must be wondering what happened to the Teflon that coated his presidency. His image has been seriously tarnished since he left office, and the political scene he once dominated is now owned by Bush, whose 80 percent approval ratings eclipses Reagan's highest mark by 20 percentage points.

In fact, some polls show Reagan running about even with Jimmy Carter, an unpopular president whose unselfish efforts in promoting human rights and building houses for the poor have earned him the title of our best ex-president and sent his approval ratings upward.

The Gipper could use in his retirement life some of the public relations genius (where is Michael Deaver, Reagan's master handler?) that guided his presidency, at least in his first term.

Reagan spent most of his political life railing against welfare queens. So it did not go unremarked when the Reagans moved out of the White House and into a $2.5-million house in Los Angeles purchased for their use by wealthy California friends. They pay $15,000 a month in rent.

Even some of Reagan's hard-core followers winced when he accepted a $2-million fee for a visit to Japan last fall sponsored by that country's largest media conglomerate. He made two 20-minute speeches and granted a television interview. At home, he comes cheaper. He recently spoke to a convention of hamburger franchiseowners for $60,000.

(Some Republicans suspect that charges of cashing in on the presidency cost Reagan any chance he may have had of being named Man of the Decade by Time magazine, which gave the title to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.) It's not that Reagan is on the verge of poverty after eight years of public service. He was a wealthy man before becoming president, and since leaving the office he has signed a $5-million contract to write two books. His state and federal pensions amount to about $130,000 a year.

Nancy Reagan has had her share of bad publicity since leaving the White House. The Internal Revenue Service is investigating whether the Reagans owe back taxes on the former first lady's use of expensive gowns (some carried a price tag of $25,000) she borrowed from major fashion designers to dazzle guests at White House functions.

Her book, My Turn, was criticized as sheer revenge against those who had crossed her or her husband. Barbara Bush still hasn't bothered to read the book, which portrays Bush as a spineless vice president.

Mrs. Reagan, who spent most of her years in the White House urging Americans to "just say no" to illegal drugs, provoked an outcry when she suddenly withdrew her support of a drug-treatment facility in Los Angeles after opponents threatened to picket the Reagans' house.

After all this, Reagan has been ordered to submit to a sharp cross-examination about his role in the Iran-Contra affair, which inflicted political damage from which his presidency never fully recovered.

When the scandal first broke, Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral, tried to protect his commander in chief. "The buck stops with me," Poindexter told a congressional committee in 1987.

Now Poindexter, who is charged with lying to Congress and obstructing its inquiries into the secret sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of the profits to the Nicaraguan Contras, is singing a different tune. Poindexter contends that Reagan knew of and approved his actions and that he had no reason to believe that he was deceiving Congress.

For his part, Reagan has offered a muddled picture of whether he knew what was going on in his White House. He told a presidential review commission three years ago he had no idea that Poindexter and another national security aide, Oliver North, were helping the Contras at a time when Congress had banned U.S. aid to the rebels. A few months later, Reagan said: "I was very definitely involved in the decision about support to the freedom fighters. It was my idea to begin with."

It is not clear whether Reagan was referring to the Iran-Contra matter or to the effort by administration officials to circumvent the congressional ban on aid to the Contras by soliciting donations from private citizens and foreign governments.

Congressional investigators and others who do not believe the full story has yet been told say the Poindexter trial will be the last chance to get to the bottom of the Iran-Contra affair. It is only fitting that Ronald Reagan has a starring role in the trial via videotape.