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Persons Real And Fictional Puzzle Over Ronald Reagan In 'Finale'


Author Thomas Mallon writes historical fiction of a special kind - no crowns or bodices here. He deals with more recent history, like Watergate and McCarthy-era Washington. His latest political novel, called "Finale," is set in 1986. President Ronald Reagan is losing his magic. It's two years after his landslide reelection and...

THOMAS MALLON: ...Everything suddenly seems to be going wrong. The Democrats are about to retake the Senate. The Iran-contra scandal is breaking open. And the Reykjavik Summit, which in the fullness of time began to look like a significant victory, at the time looked a bit like a fiasco. So the president's troubles were really mounting up.

WERTHEIMER: Who's the star of the show here? It's not quite Ronald Reagan is it?

MALLON: I think that's a fair statement. Reagan, I am not the first person to feel, was, in many ways, so remote, so mysterious. I knew I could not turn him into, you know, what we call a point of view character in fiction. And that I had to see him from the outside so a lot of the book concerns these other characters who are trying to figure him out, even his wife. For all of their wanted closeness, in her own memoirs, Mrs. Reagan admitted that some parts of the president remained inaccessible to her.

WERTHEIMER: I was pretty sure you would say Nancy Reagan.


WERTHEIMER: In fact, so sure that I picked a section of your book in which she is worrying - something that she does endlessly - about something her astrologer has told her. Maybe you could begin by sort of setting the scene and telling us about the astrologer.

MALLON: Mrs. Reagan consulted an astrologer named Joan Quigley, and this was known only to a few people in the White House. Unfortunately, for Mrs. Reagan, one of the people who knew about this in the White House was Don Regan, the president's chief of staff, Nancy Reagan's mortal enemy, at least eventually, whom she got fired during the Iran-contra scandal.

In fact, probably did the President a good turn by getting Regan out. But after Regan was fired, he wrote his memoirs and while the President was still in office, he blew the whistle on this crutch that Mrs. Reagan had after the assassination attempt in 1981. That was how she defended herself. In fact, she had known Joan Quigley a bit longer than she would like people to believe.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you could read a section of page 96, which begins, she has called Joan Quigley from Camp David. A call which she says she made to calm herself down and it had the opposite effect. So could you read for us, beginning with, usually such a comfort?


(Reading) Usually such a comfort, more like a girlfriend really, or one of those counselors she'd always been sending Patti to during her daughter's adolescence. The astrologer had ended up amplifying Nancy's unease into something like panic when she unexpectedly asked to talk about the bigger celestial picture. Today, Joan had said, literally out of the blue sky, that she now saw Uranus and Saturn turning virulently against Ronnie in 1987, less than four months away - Saturn, which had doomed them in '76.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter). So here's the punch line for this whole sequence of events - this worrying is all taking place while the President is making a televised speech and she is sitting next to him and gazing at him the way we all remember her doing.


R. REAGAN: From the early days of our administration, Nancy has been intensely involved in the effort to fight drug abuse.

MALLON: Yes, this was actually a joint speech. It was an antidrug speech, part of the Just Say No campaign. So while the president is speaking, Mrs. Reagan is being what she usually is, which is a kind of raw nerve of worry and anxiety.

WERTHEIMER: Now then, let's just see how this scene concludes.

MALLON: (Reading) All at once, she could feel Ronnie's hand. It was squeezing hers - a gentle cue. The moment to deliver her own paragraphs of the speech had arrived, and so she looked into the lens and summoned the same expression she'd displayed when trying to talk Ray Milland out of committing suicide in "Night Into Morning."


WERTHEIMER: Which is a movie, right?

MALLON: That's right. Do you want the quote?



R. REAGAN: Nancy.

N. REAGAN: Thank you. As a mother, I've always thought of September as a special month - a time when we bundled our children off to school. To the warmth of...

WERTHEIMER: Did you have any concerns about putting words into all those famous mouths? I mean, many of the folks in the book are dead. 1986 was, after all, 30 years ago. But some of them are still with us. Did that worry you?

MALLON: Well, the bigger the person was, the less it worried me. I mean, every president and every first lady in the United States becomes a kind of legend by now, a kind of mythic figure. And American libel law is very generous when it comes to allowing you to get into the heads of public figures. I think one of the things that historical fiction can do - historical fiction is always fiction. It's never history. But if you're a biographer, say, and you're trying to reconstruct the life of a famous person, you will say, you know, at this point it is not unreasonable to suppose that Mrs. Reagan may have thought, dot dot dot. Whereas if you're a novelist, you just go ahead and have her think it.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

MALLON: There's a kind of an intimacy to it and maybe it allows readers to speculate on history and on biography in a way that is freer and a little more intimate than those things are when rendered as actual history and actual biography.

WERTHEIMER: Thomas Mallon's book is called "Finale: A Novel Of The Reagan Years." He joined us from our bureau in New York City. Thank you very much.

MALLON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.