NEW YORK, MAY 4 -- Nancy Reagan, speaking as "the boss' wife" from what she called "the white gloves pulpit," gave her side of the story today on how much influence she has with the president and whether her opinions carry any weight.
"Although I don't get involved in policy," she said at the annual Associated Press luncheon for the American Newspaper Publishers Association meeting here, "it's silly to suggest my opinion should not carry some weight with a man I've been married to for 35 years."
Quoting Rutherford B. Hayes, Mrs. Reagan told 1,400 guests at the Waldorf Astoria that Hayes once said his wife didn't have much influence on Congress but she had a great deal with him.
"And, ladies and gentlemen," Mrs. Reagan continued, "don't kid yourselves, it's been that way ever since we've had presidential wives."
In her first major speech addressing her role as first lady, Mrs. Reagan appeared to be totally at ease, enjoying her performance. Even before she began speaking, she seemed relaxed, pulling out her compact and touching up her makeup between the entree and dessert.
She told the journalists and their guests that the recent controversy over her influence on the president is not a new issue. "As long as man has lived in groups, there's been the question of what to do about the boss' wife," she said.
The controversy arose this winter at the height of the Iran arms scandal when Mrs. Reagan's role in ousting former White House chief of staff Donald Regan came to light. Feeling Regan had poorly served her husband and protective of Reagan's health, honor and place in history, she waged a behind-the-scenes campaign to get rid of his top White House lieutenant.
Her critics accused her of running the government, a charge that moved President Reagan to brand press reports "despicable fiction."
Today, Mrs. Reagan said, "I'm a woman who loves her husband, and I make no apologies for looking out for his personal and political welfare. We have a genuine, sharing marriage. I go to his aid. He comes to mine."
Both have their opinions and they don't always agree, but she said "neither marriage nor politics denies a spouse the right to hold an opinion or the right to express it."
Describing her first stage role in a play called "Ramshackle Inn" starring Zasu Pitts, Mrs. Reagan said she played a character who had been kidnaped and kept in the attic.
"In the second act, I ran down the stairs and said my one line and they captured me and took me back upstairs again. Now," Mrs. Reagan went on, "I suspect there are those who think first ladies should be kept in attics, only to say our lines, pour our tea and then be put away again.
"I see the first lady as another means to keep a president from becoming isolated," she said. "I talk to people. They tell me things. They pass along ideas. And sure, I tell my husband. And if something else is about to become a problem or fall between the cracks -- I'm not above calling a staff person and asking about it."
Presidential advisers counsel the president on foreign affairs, defense, the economy, politics and other matters, she said, "but no one among all those experts is there to look after him as an individual with human needs, and a flesh and blood person who must deal with pressures of holding the most powerful position on earth."
She said she stood fast on a six-week recuperation following Reagan's prostate surgery this winter because doctors told her that's how long it would take and she believed he had "as much right to a normal recuperation as any other husband."
She had begun her speech by joking about some of the recent criticism of her and the allegations about her influence on administration policy.
"I was afraid I might have to cancel," she said. "You know how busy I am -- between staffing the White House and overseeing the arms talks.
"In fact, this morning I had planned to clear up U.S.-Soviet differences on intermediate range nuclear missiles ... but I decided to clean out Ronnie's sock drawer instead."
She told of reading recently that she is an "unelected, unaccountable," "power hungry" "political manipulator" of "extraordinary vindictiveness" who, "supported in her power-playing by a bloated, expensive East Wing staff," "exhibits a zest for combat" and presumes "to control the actions and appointments of the executive branch."
"And my son said, 'Yeah, Mom, that's you,' " she said to laughter.
She told of being unprepared for the "intense scrutiny" she underwent upon arriving in Washington six years ago. "I read that I wanted the Carters to move out of the White House early so I could move in; I banned sumo wrestlers from the Rose Garden; I planned to tear down a wall in the Lincoln bedroom."
She eventually realized, she said, that no matter what a first lady does she will be the object of attention. "So I decided I might as well focus the attention on something that really mattered to me ... the problem of drug abuse among our young people," she said.
"If the president has a bully pulpit, the first lady has a white glove pulpit. It's more refined, perhaps, more restricted, more ceremonial, but it's a pulpit all the same."
She said her special interests plus the ceremonial chores a first lady is expected to oversee can crowd out personal pleasures such as friendship.
"I think it's very important that a first lady not let her old friendships wither. And that can happen, because friends think that you're so busy and you're in this great exalted position and they shouldn't intrude.
"You've heard a lot about my trusty telephone," she continued, "but I don't think people realize it's my lifeline to friends, some of whom I've known for 35 to 40 years."
If Mrs. Reagan was wearing her "white gloves" for the occasion, the publishers were wearing their kid gloves. There were no probing questions among the half-dozen or so asked her in the question-and-answer period that followed.
"She was expecting questions along a tougher line," said Elaine Crispen, the first lady's press secretary. "But you take what you get. We had no idea what they might ask, but they are from all parts of the country, so maybe the things that are concentrated upon inside the Beltway here aren't of interest in other places."
Crispen said the first lady had been prepared to answer inquiries about a variety of subjects, including the Iran-contra scandal as well as Michael Reagan's forthcoming book, which reportedly will tell of how he felt neglected by his parents, Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman.
A spokesman for the Associated Press said the questions were submitted in the "traditional manner" by AP members during the group's annual meeting this morning. They were later sorted out by AP executives and then posed to Mrs. Reagan on the podium by Frank Batten, chairman of the AP board of directors.