NBC correspondent Chris Wallace did not report that Nancy Reagan leaked the story that she and White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan were not talking to each other, as reported in yesterday's Style section. Wallace's report was that the story was leaked by a source close to Nancy Reagan. (Published 2/28/87)

Nancy Reagan's campaign to oust Donald T. Regan as White House chief of staff is portrayed by friends and other sources as a struggle to rescue Ronald Reagan's presidency, and to protect his honor, his health and his place in history.

And in recent days, friends say, with the findings of the Tower commission imminent, she sat quietly in the evenings, acting more as a sounding board for Reagan than as an adviser.

"They needed each other now more than ever," one friend said earlier this week. "She said she didn't care what the report said. She just wanted it to come out so Ronnie could talk about it."

When the "Report of the President's Special Review Board" did come out yesterday, it said that Regan "must bear primary responsibility for the chaos that descended upon the White House" after the sale of arms to Iran became publicly known.

But Nancy Reagan's struggle to have Regan fired began in earnest last December, when she asked Democratic strategist Robert Strauss to advise her husband on the burgeoning Iran arms scandal -- an almost unprecedented invitation. After hearing Strauss lay it on the line to Reagan, she no longer suspected that Regan was an albatross -- she was convinced of it and became obsessed with getting rid of him.

Since then, Mrs. Reagan has been operating on two levels where Regan was concerned. One was official and public, the other unofficial and private.

Publicly, she declined comment. Privately, she worked the phone and met with such longtime intimates and former Reagan aides as Michael Deaver and Stuart Spencer to determine a course of action that would persuade Reagan to get rid of his chief of staff. The invitation to Strauss grew out of her meetings with Deaver and Spencer.

On the public level last week, Mrs. Reagan declined to comment on reports that she and Regan have not been speaking. On the private level, sources designated by Mrs. Reagan confirmed that they have not.

"Somebody is saying things about how she feels, and I would say probably with her blessing," said Nancy Reynolds, a former aide and a longtime friend. "Nobody likes to be the bad guy, the dragon, but it's a role she's played many times before in protecting her husband and doing what she felt was the right thing to do, especially if things are stalemated."

The already tenuous relationship between Mrs. Reagan and Regan was said to have collapsed when Regan hung up the telephone on the first lady. On one occasion, she was emphasizing to Regan that her husband's recuperation following prostate surgery go the full six weeks prescribed by Reagan's doctors. After that, what had been rumored differences exploded into a full-blown public feud, providing a rare view of life at the top where the wife of an American president locks horns with her husband's chief aide.

Publicly, the first lady's office had "no comment" on reports that Regan has twice hung up on her since December. Privately, her designated sources confirmed the incidents, but said Mrs. Reagan did not leak the story herself, as NBC White House correspondent Chris Wallace reported.

"If I've been guilty of anything," Mrs. Reagan lamented to a friend this week, "it was that I've been very firm on insisting that Ronnie recuperate. Sometimes you have to put first things first. I felt his health was the most important thing."

One friend of Nancy Reagan says, "That lady knows what she wants. She knows how to do it. She's more concerned. The president's reluctant to let anybody go. That goes back to Dixon, Illinois, when his father got the pink slip on Christmas Eve."

In recent days, her efforts to remove Regan have at times commanded equal attention with the arms scandal; and, intimates say, Regan's refusal to leave has provoked her further.

Columnist George F. Will, a close friend of the first lady, appeared on "This Week With David Brinkley" Sunday and may have summed up Nancy Reagan's view when he said, "I think nothing in his {Regan's} deplorable conduct of his office has been as contemptible as his clinging to it when his usefulness to the president, whose service he was supposed to be rendering, ended many, many months ago."

Mrs. Reagan has been involved in other administration personnel changes, and operating at both public and private levels is a familiar technique to those who know her. She is said to have helped push aside national security adviser Richard Allen and Interior Secretary James Watt, among others, when she felt they were damaging the Reagan presidency.

Former aides say she has always been defensive and protective of the president and is never so angry as when she thinks someone has ill-served her husband. Now, more than ever, as the Iran-contra affair hangs over the Reagan presidency, the prospect of it ending with his humiliation is more than she can tolerate.

Mrs. Reagan is furious with the chief of staff for getting the president to change his testimony to the Tower commission. She is said to be deeply distressed over the suicide attempt by former NSC chief Robert McFarlane and blames Regan for pressuring him to leave his post. She thinks her husband should not have delivered his State of the Union address Jan. 27, just three weeks after having prostate surgery, and was at odds with Regan over the contents of the speech. Mrs. Reagan also blames the chief of staff for the president's badly prepared press conference Nov. 19.

"She feels she's his guard," says Reynolds. "Most people feel she is often his saving grace. He trusts her even when he disagrees with her."

Persistent in her questioning, obstinate as Ronald Reagan's protector, badgering in her manner, she has a reputation among those who have been on the other end of the line as someone who can "drive you crazy, but-but-but-ing you to death, never getting off the phone." In Reagan's days as governor of California, it was common knowledge that the only member of his staff who had time to listen was Deaver, who is still listening.

Don Regan didn't want to listen.

"He may not have schmoozed the way he should have," says a Regan friend. "I think he acknowledges that she wants anyone but him in the job. The funny thing is, they were very close when he was secretary of the treasury."

Sources close to Regan say he never hung up on the first lady, but a former White House aide says the chief of staff was slamming down the receiver on Mrs. Reagan as long as two years ago.

By the end of last year, the feud was already building. From the privacy of the presidential living quarters, the president was overheard telling his wife, in effect, not to bug him anymore on the subject of Regan.

Elaine Crispen, Mrs. Reagan's press secretary, says she and Mrs. Reagan have not discussed whether Regan hung up on the first lady or how that story became public. One theory she offers is that since it is not nice to be hung up on, if the aggrieved person mentions it to a friend it would not be unusual for the news to spread.

"You wouldn't mention it with the plan of it going as far as it did -- not as a planned strategy," Crispen says.

Regan's detractors say he is brusque, arrogant and poorly informed on affairs of state. The feud, says another former Reagan aide, has "given Reagan the image that he's not in charge and that Regan is a guy who can even insult his wife and he's not responding to it."

But the president's relationship with Regan has made Mrs. Reagan's struggle all the more difficult; the two are known to swap jokes and stories and enjoy a special kind of bonhomie.

"The president isn't given to lots of intimate friends," says Reynolds. "He likes Paul Laxalt -- very close to him, Laxalt's very honest with him. He's very fond of Mike {Deaver}. But he really personally likes and admires Don Regan."

A Regan friend says the chief of staff showed enormous compassion during the president's surgery for colon cancer in July 1985 and during his prostate surgery. The friend adds that there was a considerable difference of opinion as to how the president should respond to the Iran scandal, and that Regan did his best to serve his boss.

"He's certainly not trying to throw his weight around for use of power, but he has a view of what the president ought to do for the presidency and it conflicted with hers. He's taken an awful lot he doesn't deserve. It's just been a headache."

Mrs. Reagan, in spite of her keen wish to see Regan leave, was said to have felt trapped by events, aware of the difficulty of making a major personnel shift in a period when the president faced surgery, his annual message to Congress and the scandal.

She lost the battle to replace White House spokesman Larry Speakes with her former press secretary Sheila Tate. The job was eventually given to Marlin Fitzwater, a Regan choice.

But in a week when calls for Regan to leave are mounting on Capitol Hill and within the White House, when the Tower commission singled out the chief of staff for special rebuke, few think Regan will survive much longer.

"There's such a drumbeat now, such a siege mentality," says Reynolds. "Whatever happens, Reagan and Regan are never going to be able to appear in public without this being brought up. That may be a realization that there's no way out of this."

"Nancy's not nice when she's angry," says a former presidential aide. "She's always very controlled. But she has a sharp tongue. There's a great fear factor, especially among staff types who don't want to be on her bad side." Others note that she has "a long memory" about those who cross her.

Much of the first lady's campaign against Regan was conducted through her favorite instrument of communication, the telephone.

Close friends to whom the first lady regularly talks include Deaver, Spencer, Reynolds, Will, Carol Laxalt (the former senator's wife), Mary Jane Wick (the wife of USIA Director Charles Z. Wick), Betty Wilson (the wife of former ambassador to the Vatican William Wilson) and Betsy Bloomingdale. She also frequently hears from Carol Price, the wife of U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Charles Price -- who, like Laxalt, is said to be a possible successor to Regan.

Many of these, and others, were involved in spreading the word that Regan should leave his post. Last Sunday, for example, Will said, "When he {Regan} got into this tiff with Mrs. Reagan, it was principally because he and his people, his underlings, who are bullied into a case of marvelous submission, were spreading stories about her that simply weren't true and she answered as decorously as possible under the circumstances."

The first lady's pursuit of Regan has taken its toll in other areas. Some staff members lament that no one is paying attention now to Mrs. Reagan's anti-drug-abuse crusade. In recent weeks she has made several appearances, only to be asked repeatedly about the scandal and Regan's fate.

And for Mrs. Reagan, an admitted chronic worrier, the political crisis has only heightened ever-present concerns about her husband. After his recent surgery, she referred to herself as his "private nurse's aide," seeing to it that the president followed doctors' orders, which included a midday bath. She was heard saying, more than once, "Honey, stop talking, go take your bath."

Says a former presidential aide, "She is not omnipotent. But she is a very powerful person because they love each other. It's almost an adolescent deep love and friendship for each other."