Nancy Reagan's departing chief of staff, Lee L. Verstandig, hasn't left yet, but already he has gone down in East Wing history as "Lee of the Two Dozen Days."
Sources say in those 24 days he alienated Mrs. Reagan's staff to the point of revolt, and that the first lady was so upset that Michael K. Deaver, the longtime Reagan aide who recommended she hire Verstandig, had to find a way to get rid of him.
Yesterday, Mrs. Reagan's press secretary Elaine Crispen denied there had been any "disenchantment" with Verstandig on the part of Mrs. Reagan or the East Wing staff.
Verstandig, who said an announcement about his successor might be made today, would not comment on the account of his tenure, dismissing it as "gossip."
"I think some of the concerns you may have heard are some of the natural concerns that are raised when anybody is coming in," Verstandig said. "Anytime you take someone like me and move them around people say, 'What's the guy going to do?' I was very careful not to make waves."
In the hush-hush world of the White House staff, no one will talk for the record, but from dozens of conversations with insiders a different, stormy picture emerges:
Mrs. Reagan "hit the ceiling" during Verstandig's first week, sources say, when she learned that he had started to rearrange his office to make room for a deputy, a position that had not been authorized. She put her foot down during his second week, after her East Wing staff protested that he was trying to cut off their access to her.
At that point, Deaver got involved. "Deaver got him into it -- and so Deaver had to get him out of it," one official said. Deaver did not return phone calls earlier this week about the Verstandig resignation; a spokesman said he was unavailable for comment again yesterday.
On Feb. 7, Verstandig announced that he had accepted a job in Deaver's consulting firm where he would be doing "strategic planning." After 10 years in government, he said he felt it was time to return to the "private sector," something he said he had told Mrs. Reagan last fall he wanted to do in 1986.
Still, virtually everyone expressed surprise that the resignation came so soon after Verstandig started work. While still serving as the $73,600-a-year undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he had spent two months observing Mrs. Reagan's staff. His observation took him to the Geneva summit and to an anti-drug-abuse event in California, and he later compiled a study of his findings.
When he went on the White House payroll Jan. 15 as a $78,000-a-year assistant to the president, he took with him two assistants from HUD. One was his deputy Theresa Elmore Behrendt, whom he intended to make staff administrator and office manager at an annual salary of $60,000, the other Patricia Dellonte, his secretary.
From then on, things happened quickly.
Verstandig issued two orders: He asked for written job descriptions from Mrs. Reagan's staff, setting a deadline for turning them in to Behrendt. He also ordered his office rearranged to provide space for Behrendt.
Mrs. Reagan's disenchantment began when Verstandig went ahead with plans to hire Behrendt even though he had been told there were no vacant slots or money to create any.
"Nobody could quite figure out what function the deputy would have," says one source.
Fears that Verstandig intended to limit their access to Mrs. Reagan, and resentment over Behrendt's $60,000 salary, prompted a near revolt among the staff. Several had not had pay raises for 2 1/2 years. Hopes for any faded last year when Ken Barun was hired as projects director, a job that includes handling Mrs. Reagan's antidrug campaign, at an annual salary of $60,000, some $15,000 more than his female predecessor.
Rumors that things might be turning sour for Verstandig began to spread in the third week when a West Wing staffer trying to get his signature couldn't find him for several days.
Some sources say that in addition to the staff being disillusioned with Verstandig, he became disillusioned with the job.
One former White House official believes that Deaver oversold the chief of staff position in his eagerness to find Mrs. Reagan an acceptable successor to James S. Rosebush, who resigned last November after four years in the job. He came into the job at one level higher than the rank Rosebush had, and may have had an inflated idea of what his role was going to be, the official said.
"People said, 'Why are you going over, you have more talent to do other things,' " Verstandig said yesterday. "I said, 'I went over to help these people.' "
"He thought he'd be going to West Wing meetings with the senior staff," said another source. "He saw himself as a policy-type person but when he got there, despite the elevated title, he found that he was really the East Wing coordinator with administrative duties."
*Others say Verstandig also expected to "call more of the shots," a tip-off that despite observing the East Wing operation for two months he still did not understand how it worked.
"There is input from everyone, including Mrs. Reagan," says a source.
Rosebush called it "management by consensus." As chief of staff, he coordinated Mrs. Reagan's social, community and travel activities with the West Wing, was administrative officer over the 15-member staff and served as Mrs. Reagan's aide-de-camp. Rosebush expanded his duties to include preadvancing Mrs. Reagan's foreign trips.
Under Verstandig's supervision come projects director Barun; social secretary Linda Faulkner, who arranges White House social events; Marty Coyne, in charge of advancing trips for Mrs. Reagan; press secretary Elaine Crispen; special assistant Jane Erkenbeck, Mrs. Reagan's personal secretary; and their staffs, including several unpaid volunteers.
Behrendt was first announced simply as a new staff member, but after inquiries about her position, Crispen said Verstandig told her Behrendt was a temporary employe. Verstandig had reportedly been told several times that there were no additional staff slots.
One theory is that Verstandig's antennae weren't very good -- that he never got the message about the staffing situation, the same way he didn't get the message a year ago when chief of staff Donald T. Regan reportedly sent signals that he wanted him out of the West Wing as presidential assistant for governmental affairs. Two months later, the White House finally dislodged Verstandig by making him undersecretary at HUD.
Sources say Regan was not told of plans to bring Verstandig back to the White House until the day before Rosebush announced his resignation. Speculation then was that he and Verstandig would have to get along because Nancy Reagan wanted him. Verstandig, however, denied again yesterday that there had ever been any problems between him and Regan.
"People pressed me on that a year ago at the White House. I said, 'Look, if the president and one or two people knew why I left, that's all that counted,' " Verstandig said.
When Verstandig took the East Wing job, he talked about following Anne Gorsuch Burford at the Environmental Protection Agency and characterized himself as an administration "trouble-shooter."
"I could tell you I've been through these kinds of things at EPA when I was brought in under very different circumstances. I took over an operation in the West Wing a couple of years ago; I went over to HUD," he said.
"Obviously there were concerns of people [ in the East Wing] and we have talked about them here, on the inside," he said. "The question I have, is that all relevant to anybody on the outside?"