Reagan’s public relations offensive

MARCI McDONALD March 16 1987

Reagan’s public relations offensive

MARCI McDONALD March 16 1987

Reagan’s public relations offensive


Even his critics agreed that it was a skilful, if slightly strained, performance. The voice on which he had built a 30-year showbusiness career had traded in its hallmark mellowness for an uncharacteristic urgency. His brisk, unsmiling delivery of the 12-minute script seemed designed to show that at 76 he had not lost his vigor. In the cleverly crafted text—which had gone through

countless White House rewrites—Ronald Reagan accepted “full responsibility” for the Iranian arms sale scandal which had left his presidency grievously wounded.

Contradicting his own earlier claims, Reagan acknowledged that the plan had “deteriorated” into an exchange of weapons for hostages. Then, he switched to the folksy-philosophical style which contributed so much to his once-unrivalled popularity.“You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes if you’ve lived your life properly,” he said. “So you learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.”

With that blend of contrition and self-justification, Reagan pulled off a public relations success in what many observers had billed as the most important speech of his political career. Later in the week the President’s position strengthened further as the White House responded favorably to an arms control proposal from the Kremlin and officials spoke of a proposed CanadaU.S. trade accord becoming a key lega-

cy of Reagan’s leadership.

It represented the essential first step toward salvaging his embattled office from two years of total paralysis to come. But many, even among his supporters, indicated that the speech— and his flurry of personnel changes last week—were not enough to dispel the questions still clouding his presidency. Said senior Republican Senator Robert Dole of Kansas: “This isn’t behind him yet, but it’s a start.”

Indeed, some critics still faulted Reagan for failing to apologize outright and admit that his Iran policy had been flawed from the outset. And a CBS News poll of 510 viewers sampled after the speech indicated that, while it

had improved his approval rating by 11 points to 51 per cent, 54 per cent of those asked thought he was still holding something back. A majority of respondents also said that they believed the scandal would handicap the rest of his presidency.

But even Democratic congressmen said that they were content to accept the concessions Reagan made, if only because they did not want to see the

nation further weakened. Said Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas: “We do not want an enfeebled presidency.”

Reagan’s masterly television performance was one of a number of attempts last week to counter the impression that he had become what the respected British weekly, The Observer, termed “the zombie President.” Even before the speech, new White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker declared that he had “never seen Ronald Reagan more energetic, more fully engaged.”

Then Baker launched the president into a flurry of activity to prove the point. At a closed meeting of the 50

members of the National Security Council (NSC) staff, Reagan warned them to stay within the law and ordered them not to engage in further covert actions, something he had already announced three months earlier.

After persuading Robert Gates, his candidate for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to withdraw his controversial nomination, the White House announced a replacement for the ailing William Casey. The new nominee was William Webster, the respected former appeals court judge who has been head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation since 1978.

In his attempt to divert public attention from continuing congressional in-

vestigations into the arms scandal, Reagan received help from an unlikely source: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. With an offer to pull intermediate-range nuclear missiles out of Europe-even if no action was taken on the stumbling block of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (page 30)—the Kremlin appeared to be rescuing Reagan’s presidency from a crippling impasse. Indeed, Nancy Reagan and the President’s longtime advisers had concluded that an arms control agreement would be the best way to surmount the current crisis and assure him a place in history (page 30).

But critics said that Reagan should not rush into an ill-considered treaty

merely to divert attention from his domestic political problems. And such analysts as Stephen Hess of the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution pointed out that the Soviets’ offer of an arms reduction treaty was clearly opportunistic. Said Hess of the proposed arms accord: “[the Soviets] want one and now he needs one.”

A similar mix of motives appeared evident on Capitol Hill, where Democratic leaders declared themselves heartened by White House overtures to appease Congress. But the Democrats also indicated their intention to take advantage of Reagan’s difficulties to press him into compromises on a number of issues. Those include this

year’s controversial trillion-dollar budget, a proposed trade bill and future aid to the Nicaraguan rebels known as contras.

Indeed, the first test of their resolve may take place this week on a vote to release the final $52-million instalment of last year’s $130-million military aid package to the contras. Some Democrats have vowed to call for a moratorium on its release until all previous contra funding is accounted for in the investigations of the Iranian arms deal—a move which could delay release until at least next fall.

In laying out an agenda that will take the heat off Reagan, the cabinet also decided to safeguard its

trade policy by giving a new higher profile to efforts for a free trade pact with Canada. U.S. deputy treasury secretary Richard Darman told 40 members of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs meeting in Washington that such an agreement could turn out to be one of the Reagan administration’s few “historic” achievements.

In fact, that added political impetus is likely to induce the White House to use the President’s April summit with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Ottawa for a major statement on trade. And Darman promised that if an agreement was reached by next fall, the administration would launch a full-scale effort to push it through Congress.

Reagan’s major coup in forging a new spirit of co-operation with Capitol Hill remains his appointment of Baker. Last week, as Baker paid a sentimental courtesy call on his former congressional colleagues, they hailed him as a master compromiser who had piloted some of the President’s most contentious programs through legislative storms as the former Senate Republican majority leader.

On some issues, Baker’s personal popularity may prove decisive. But despite the rhetoric of mutual co-operation, Baker will have to deal with a new independent-mindedness on Capitol Hill, where neither Republicans nor Democrats now fear Reagan’s once-awesome popularity. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole predicted few legislative victories for the White House in the next two years. Said Dole: “We are in a holding pattern.”

As Reagan attempts to move forward from the Iran affair, he may encounter opposition from rightwingers who are clearly concerned that he will move toward the political centre. In an effort to calm those elements, Reagan met with a group of conservative senators late last week to assure them that he will press for deployment of his space-based antimissile system, for a constitutional amendment enshrining a balanced budget, and for legislation forbidding abortion.

Still, even the President’s political foes were cheering him on last week in the hope that he would recover enough credibility to restore his, and the country’s, damaged reputation. Said New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo after Reagan’s televised address: “We all want to love Ronald Reagan. He made it a little bit easier tonight.”

MARCI McDONALD in Washington