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Nancy Reagan deserves a turn

Throughout the long campaigns of '80 and '84, she seemed always to be at his side. Time after time she smiled at the same jokes, clapped at the same points in the same speeches, kept those great Bambi eyes riveted upon her man. This was Nancy, and perhaps it was this very adulation that soured so many cynics of the press. We ink-stained wretches are not accustomed to Bambi eyes. Maybe it was envy. A few of us actively loved the lady, but the sharks of the media feed upon live bait. There she was, vulnerable, so they struck at her wardrobe, they smashed at the White House china, they mocked her California style. Politics is tough on men, but it is tougher on their wives. Often it was hell for Nancy Reagan.

Now she has published her memoirs, My Turn, written with William Novak, and once again the sharks are circling. Her recollections are "petulant" or "whiny," or in one review, "little girlish." To glance over the reviews is to infer that most of the critics, following trade practice, never read the whole book. They went instead to the chapter on Don Regan, and they chortled anew at Nancy and her astrologer, and they marked her shafts at John Sears and Raisa Gorbachev.

My judgment is quite different. I read to the very last page and put My Turn down with tears in my eyes. This is a beautiful book, poignant, revealing, deeply touching. Yes, it has touches of feminine malice - without these spikes the book might have been so much creamed chicken - but these barbs are the least of the work.

Of much greater interest are the chapters in which she writes of her domestic life with her beloved "Ronnie." She entered upon her duties as first lady much as Alice ventured into Wonderland, in a sense of believing disbelief. It was all true - the butlers, the limousines, the fresh flowers, the state dinners - and often it seemed unreal.

Her days in the White House were crowded with duties beyond those she had experienced as wife of the governor of California. There had been some privacy in Sacramento. In Washington she always was on stage, and there always were reporters waiting to see her muff a line.

It is small wonder she hungered for weekend escapes to Camp David.

Nancy's story in some ways is the story of every woman who has known a major illness. On Oct. 5, 1987, she went for her annual mammogram. Dr. John Hutton, the White House physician, found a lump in her left breast. It was cancer. Women, better than men, will understand.

On Oct. 6 she presided over a state dinner for the crown prince and princess of Japan. On Oct. 7 she flew to Chicago for a fund-raising dinner for a children's foundation. On Oct. 9 she met with contributors to the Drug Abuse Foundation. On the 14th she sat beside El Salvador's President Jose Napoleon Duarte at yet another state dinner. On the 16th she flew to New Hampshire to promote the Foster Grandparents Program. And Oct. 17 she endured a radical mastectomy.

Nancy has shared with other mothers the problem of a rebellious daughter. After the operation, daughter Patti called. It was the first time they had spoken in two years. In her diary, Nancy noted that the conversation was "short and rather stiff." Patti abruptly urged her to have reconstructive surgery.

"I couldn't help wondering if she talked about reconstructive surgery because she couldn't think of anything else to say. I longed to hear something more comforting about what I had just gone through."

On Oct. 26, Nancy's mother died of a stroke. Patti did not come to the funeral. "No call, no card, no flowers." It was one more "additional hurt." One recalls the rueful observation of Shakespeare's King Lear: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."

The Reagans moved out of the White House a year ago, and suddenly "it was just Ronnie and me alone, surrounded by all those boxes."

After the luxury and excitement of the presidency, "it seemed unreal and overwhelming." The pain of surfacing must have been like diver's bends. Forlornly she found herself wishing for just one more term.

But Nancy is Nancy. Since then she has poured herself into the war on drugs, into promotions for the American Cancer Society, into "Just Say No International." Sadly, the carping criticism continues. The sniping goes on.

Well, this is a warm and lovely woman, married to a warm and loving man. It's my turn to say to the nit-pickers: Get off the lady's back.

And read all of her book.

Universal Press Syndicate