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Listening Carefully to Nancy

THE other evening I sat down and listened to Nancy Reagan tell me how she learned her husband had been shot. Just before she told her story, a musician named Scott Killian had arranged a few chords of foreboding lead-in music - harp and clarinet, I think - to set the mood. Then in a cool, low-key voice Nancy began: ``I had just returned to the White House from a luncheon and was talking in the third floor solarium with Ted Graber, our decorator, and Rex Scoutman, the chief usher. Suddenly...''

I reached over and stopped the tape player.

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I tried to remember: Had Rosalyn Carter done this too? Had Betty Ford? Lady Bird Johnson? Certainly Pat Nixon had not written a book about her troubled days in the White House and then tape recorded a dramatic three-hour reading of the book to be sold in supermarkets.

I started the tape again. Nancy went on to tell me the whole story of how she raced to the hospital and learned her husband had been shot. Complete with hospital details more likely to turn up in tabloid newspapers, the tape also includes many personal doubts and fears. Twice Nancy's voice quavers as she tells of helping her husband through the aftermath.

Not even the most heartless curmudgeon would suggest that she experienced anything but wrenching confusion and fear at that moment. Unfortunately, the skill of her reading is overshadowed by the fact that she is telling her story to anyone who will pay to listen. Incredulity at commercialism gets pushed to a new level for me, and her eight years as America's first lady is reduced to a lot of whining melodrama and scattered homilies.

Aside from earning money - not a suspect motive in a capitalist society - why is she selling a tape with so much complaining, fussing, correcting, and foolishness in it along with some chatty warmth and girlish insights?

One reason, of course, is found in her title, ``My Turn,'' which means she felt she was without opportunity to speak out against her critics or correct misunderstandings while she was in the White House. Now, with skills learned during her acting days, she demands her outspoken turn.

Another reason is that she is who she is.

Even though her book is on the best-seller list, I'd say, skip the book. Buy the tape if you want to ``hear'' about and peek behind a small part of the fa,cade of eight years of American political history. Here is the voice and opinions of the strong-willed woman who had the ear and heart of the president. The tone of her voice and what she chooses to talk about and who to criticize reflects on their relationship and the decisions he made.

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More than anything it is the method of delivering her story that seems so remarkable yet inevitable, given her style and background. In tape and book form her White House experience is a product marketed in a hostile arena rather than a voice sparked by dignity and grace.

Either way, she has the turn she wanted.

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