It was President Ronald Reagan’s first public event of the year—and he appeared relaxed and confident as he sat at his desk in the Oval Office last week and faced a television camera. Only 10 days before, he had undergone successful prostate surgery and
an examination to ensure that he was free of the colon cancer that had been detected in 1985. But the President, who will be 76 next month, showed no signs of wear and tear as he addressed high school students across the country on the birthday of assassinated black civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The President’s live TV message-delivered in the soothing style that has earned him the title the Great Communicator—was that “we cannot be complacent about racism and bigotry.” But the flawless delivery and easy manner failed to counter the widespread perception that 10 weeks of buffeting over the Irangate scandal, combined with age and doubtful health, had crucially weakened his presidency.
Indeed, evidence of Reagan’s apparent inability to appreciate the serious-
ness of the arms-for-Iran affair—and to grasp other major national issues— continued to accumulate. White House spokesman Larry Speakes revealed that Reagan had not yet read key documents concerning the secret arms sales to Iran and the illegal diversion
of the profits to the contras, antigovernment rebels in Nicaragua. And as the President continued to insist that he had done nothing wrong, some of his closest supporters began to call on him to admit his mistake and apologize to the nation. Said rightwing Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah: “It would be better if the President would say, ‘The buck stops at my desk.’ ”
The main criticism of the President appeared to deal with his “inattention to detail,” as one newspaper put it. An article in The New York Times claimed that “Reagan’s mental out-
look and grasp of issues are of increasing concern on Capitol Hill.” The article said that even Reagan’s congressional supporters were “wondering if he comprehends some broader issues.” The paper cited a meeting just before Christmas between Reagan
and 20 senior Republican congressmen to discuss his forthcoming State of the Union Address. “Many of them left dismayed,” reported The Times, “because many of his responses had little to do with their proposals.”
Reagan’s defenders bristled at such suggestions. Deputy White House spokesman Albert Brashear had a one-word reply to critics of the President’s apparent detachment and inattention: “Phooey.” And a White House spokesman, seeking to counter reports that the § President had severely 2 cut down on his daily S agenda because of his
health, described him as “alert” and “vigorous.”
One of Reagan’s strongest defenders was Larry Speakes, who will leave the White House in February for a senior position on Wall Street. Speakes said that although Reagan had not yet read key White House documents on the Iranian arms affair, he would do so “in due course.” He added that Reagan was moving to reorganize the White House’s handling of the crisis. The President was to hold detailed discussions this week with White House counsel Peter Wallison and David Abshire, the former U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who last week moved next door to the White House to co-ordinate its response to the congressional investigations. As well, claimed Speakes, the President had taken “unprecedented action” to throw open the White House doors to investigators for two congressional committees and special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who were studying the arms shipments.
Still, Reagan was clearly seeking to take a low profile on the Iran-contra affair. He has been on the defensive since mid-October, when a small Beirut magazine revealed that, contrary to his own policy of not dealing with terrorists, he had authorized the sale of arms to Iran.
In a news conference on Nov. 19 he claimed that he had done so primarily to establish contacts with Iranian “moderates” and only secondarily to obtain the release of American hostages held by pro-Iranian factions in Lebanon.
Since then Reagan has not directly dealt with journalists’ queries. In his last appearance before the media—on Nov. 25 to announce the dismissal of Lt.-Col. Oliver North, a White House aide closely involved with the arms sales, and the resignation of North’s boss, National Security Adviser ViceAdmiral John Poindexter—Reagan refused to take reporters’ questions. And he left it to Attorney-General Edwin Meese to make the stunning revelation that North, in defiance of a congressional ban, had diverted millions of dollars in arms sales profits to the contra rebels. But the White House strategy of distancing the President from the
Iran incident has drawn the criticism of even staunch Republicans.
Meanwhile, Reagan’s associates were fighting among themselves about who had done what in the Iran affair. Recently, in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Reagan’s former national security adviser Robert McFarlane—who was in office when the Iran arms dealings began— said that the President approved the first shipment in August, 1985, five
months before Reagan admitted to having done so. In turn, White House chief of staff Donald Regan reportedly accused McFarlane of giving the President bad advice on Iran. The infighting led one senior administration official to comment that “a whole lot of asscovering is going on—and I don’t think it’s the President’s ass that’s being covered.”
One senior administration member keeping a careful distance from the controversy was Secretary of State George Shultz, who returned at midweek from an eight-day tour of Africa. Responding to journalists’ questions, Shultz explained that during a twoyear period he was kept in the dark about White House policy on Iran. When asked to comment on reports last week that the Central Intelligence Agency had been feeding falsified in-
telligence reports to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, he said, “That’s news to me.”
Shultz had his own critics. Last week Cyrus Vance, secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter, appeared before the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify on U.S. policy on Iran. In 1980 Vance resigned in protest at Carter’s abortive attempt at a military rescue of the 50 American hostages being held by the Iranians. He made it clear that he felt Shultz should have resigned over the arms scandal. The secret White House policies, said Vance, were “naïve, wrong and severely damaging to our national interests and credibility.”
So far the White House strategy has been to say as little as possible about the Iran incident. Indeed, the President has refused to make any comment on McFarlane’s testimony on when he approved the first arms shipment. Brashear told reporters that it would be “inappropriate” to ask the President to clarify that point until the White House had pieced together a chronology of events. As well, White House aides said that Reagan had not yet decided whether to make any reference to the arms affair in his annual state of the union address on Jan. 27. However, if he avoided the subject, many observers said, he would only confirm suspicions that he did not grasp the full implications of the scandal.
But as each day passed without a presidential news conference or any other declaration by Reagan on the subject, the pressures grew. Some Republicans, including Utah’s Senator Hatch and Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, appealed to Reagan to accept responsibility for the failed arms shipment policy and apologize. Urging Reagan to emulate Democratic President Harry Truman, who kept a sign on his desk that said, “The buck stops here,” Hatch said that Reagan should tell the American people, “If I didn’t know, I should have known.” Added Hyde: “I’m not saying the President should crawl, but he should explain.” But at week’s end the White house was holding firm. Said Brashear: “The President feels he has done nothing for which he must apologize.”
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