September 26, 1988 12:00 PM

In the early months of 1987, Ronald Reagan’s Presidency seemed ready to implode. Almost daily, there was some new allegation of malfeasance related to the Iran-contra investigation. Contentious White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan had just been forced to resign. The President needed a strong hand to get things back on track, and he tapped Howard Baker, a respected former Tennessee Senator. That much is a reasonable interpretation of familiar recent history, but according to Landslide, an engrossing new book about the President’s second term written by Washington reporters Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus, what happened next was strange indeed.

Landslide claims that Baker wanted to find out just how bad things were around the Oval Office before he started work. He asked Jim Cannon, a longtime confidant, to check into the situation. Cannon, a former adviser to President Gerald Ford, knew how the White House was supposed to work—and he paled at what he found. Reagan’s White House, he told the authors later, had degenerated into, “chaos…. Individual cabinet members were just doing whatever they wanted.” Worse, Landslide maintains that when Cannon asked about Reagan, aides told him the President had abdicated all but ceremonial duties. Cannon says they complained that Reagan “was lazy; he wasn’t interested in the job…. They said he wouldn’t come over to work—all he wanted to do was watch movies and television.”

And so, say the two reporters, on a bleak March Sunday morning, Cannon sat down at the computer in his Georgetown home and wrote a memo to Baker. He advised him to consider recommending use of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows the Cabinet to remove a President who proves “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” The next day, says Cannon, a worried Baker ordered his top aides to watch the President closely. Cannon and the others demanded seats near Reagan at an issues luncheon, where he appeared alert and charming; the idea of removing him went no further. The Cannon memo is the most explosive revelation about the Reagan White House that Landslide contains, but it’s far from the only one. The book—published this week—describes a process by which Reagan won reelection in 1984, sweeping a stunning 49 states, only to gradually lose control of the Presidency. Drawing on more than 200 interviews and previously unreleased tapes and documents, Landslide paints a shocking picture of an inattentive chief executive who hated making decisions and was manipulated by those around him.

Among other assertions, authors Mayer and McManus claim that:

•Four months before Reagan’s reelection, campaign strategists agreed that they had no agenda. On one tape from their meetings—leaked to the writers—an aide complained that “they don’t have one goddam thing in the pipeline,” and another accused the Administration of “running on empty.”

•In 1985, to discredit archrival Robert McFarlane, according to several White House insiders, Don Regan spread false rumors that the National Security Adviser was having an affair with NBC White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

•When House counsel Fred Fielding went to Nancy Reagan to explain that she had to return some expensive gifts from campaign supporters, “she showed up wearing a dressing gown—making it clear in every way what an intrusion she thought he and his piss-ant legal ideas were.”

•The President was easily perplexed by the material he was given to read. In February 1987, when Reagan invited members of the Tower Commission to the Oval Office, Landslide reports, he inadvertently began reading from his aides’ instructions for the meeting. He then sent a “note of presidential clarification” to the commission that said, “I don’t remember—period.”

Jane Mayer says that when she first talked with an agent in 1986 about doing a book on “what goes on in the White House after the klieg lights are turned out,” she never imagined she would end up showing the President in such an unflattering light. But, as White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, she did know that it would be best to team up with someone with foreign policy expertise. So, before accepting a $100,000 advance for the book, Mayer went shopping for a collaborator.

Journalist friends steered her to McManus, a veteran national security correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Having already considered writing a book about the Iran-contra scandal, he was eager to talk. First, though, the two reporters turned their investigative skills on each other. “We found out we were asking the same friends about each other’s qualifications,” says McManus. “It was a little bit like an arranged marriage.”

They made an odd couple. California-born McManus, 35—who worked for years as a UPI foreign correspondent after graduating from Stanford University—is a committed suburbanite who even considered having a plaque stating Consulate of the San Fernando Valley made for his Bethesda, Md., home. Married, with two daughters and another child on the way, McManus found it hard to spend six months in his basement study working on the book because he missed that sweet commuter moment when “the kids come running out and rush up to me.”

Mayer, 33, lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington. A native of New York City and a Yale graduate, she worked her way up from the Journal entertainment beat to the White House by earning a reputation as a tough reporter. When director James Brooks began looking for models for the character played by Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, Mayer was one of the women he studied.

Like the Hunter character, for example, Mayer tends to cry—though not, alas, on schedule. “I cry when I don’t want to cry,” she explains. “I cry at work when I get frustrated.” And she cried the day former Chief of Staff Don Regan’s book, For the Record, was published. “I thought that was the last time anyone would want to read anything about the Reagan White House,” Mayer says. But Regan’s book, preceded by Michael Deaver’s and Larry Speakes’s, also calmed the authors’ fears that they would be perceived as doing a “hatchet job” on the President. “In comparison to his own people, we have been kind,” says Mayer.

It bothers both reporters that they still can’t answer the central questions of the President’s second term: How much did Reagan know about Iran-contra, and when did he know it? “As a foreign policy reporter, my initial assumption was that Reagan had to know,” says McManus. “But after all the reporting, I think the unthinkable was entirely possible—that he didn’t know.”

Setting out to “write a thriller without making up quotes,” as Mayer puts it, the two reporters found that the facts obliged. The tale that emerged in their reporting has all the elements of “grand opera,” continues McManus, with “a President surrounded by scheming courtiers and a mad secret operative [Oliver North] hurtling toward disaster. No novelist would dare put a plot like that together.”

—By Jacob Young, with Jane Sims Podesta

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