The President’s performance

MARCI McDONALD March 30 1987

The President’s performance

MARCI McDONALD March 30 1987

The President’s performance


The pressure for a presidential news conference had been building for months. President Ronald Reagan’s last meeting with the news media had taken place on Nov. 19. After that disastrous, mistake-riddled fielding of questions about the Iran arms scandal, White House aides had barred reporters from presidential photo sessions. Then Nancy Reagan—clearly worried over her husband’s discomfort when talking without a script—had so vigorously opposed another encounter with the media that she had a telephone shouting match with former chief of staff Donald Regan, who hung up on her. As recently as two weeks ago, the President himself had ducked journalists’ queries by faking laryngitis. And Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming had exacerbated the mood by charging that the media were counting on their belief that Reagan was off-balance and that they would “like to stick it in his gazoo.”

But Reagan’s first news conference in four months was something of an anticlimax. Media critics charged that the questioning was soft, and the only new insight Reagan added into his own thoughts about the arms scandal was his admission that, if he had the chance to do things over, he would not sell weapons to Iran. Said Reagan: “I would not go down that road again.” Still, despite two lengthy practice sessions with aides in the White House family theatre, where the Reagans usually curl up together to watch movies, the President’s televised performance still failed to resolve key questions

about his abilities or grasp of facts.

Repeatedly, he blamed his faulty memory as the reason for changing his testimony to the Tower commission about when he first approved the arms sales. And at times he betrayed his age and nervousness. Washington Post television critic Tom Shales found that “now and then, a vaguely fearful look crossed Reagan’s glistening eyes.” And Toronto-based communications consultant Gabor Apor noted: “I have never seen him more aged. He stuttered a lot and he was so worried about forgetting a word or a line that it showed.”

Still, most U.S. politicians and media experts gave the President good reviews merely for having survived in a situation where he had often fumbled. Said former Pennsylvania governor Richard Thornburgh, a Republican: “His tone and demeanor will be soothing to a public that basically wants to believe the President anyway.”

In strengthening his own credibility with the U.S. public, however, Reagan may have damaged that of his vice-

president, George Bush.

As reporters surged toward him with shouted questions at the close of the news conference, he answered one about whether Bush, like Secretary of State George Shultz and Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger, had raised objections to the sale of arms to Iran. “No,” replied Reagan—twice—publicly underlining that Bush had failed to stand up against a policy that even some of his supporters said he should have known was bound to fail.

Since the Tower commission’s damaging report a month ago depicted Reagan as a hands-off president, confused about his own administration’s policies, Reagan had been making a steady comeback. His new chief of staff, Howard Baker, launched him into a carefully choreographed public relations offensive designed to demonstrate his involvement and vigor.

Even the Soviet Embassy in Washington was called in to help.

After a U.S. coast guard crew rescued 37 Soviet sailors from a sinking freighter 200 miles off the coast of New Jersey, the White House asked clearly startled embassy officials to bring the survivors to the White House. There, in a Rose Garden ceremony, the President was philosophical. “After all,” he said, “this good planet whirling through space isn’t so very different from a ship upon the sea. We must reach out to each other in goodwill, for we have no other alternative.”

Then, sporting an emerald green tie, Reagan was whisked to Capitol Hill for a conciliatory St. Patrick’s Day lunch with key congressmen. Reading from a prepared text, he won an enthusiastic response with a display of his trademark humor. Joking that he had recovered from his case of laryngitis “just in time,” he offered his congressional opponents an Irish blessing/curse: may God, he said, “turn their hearts—or their ankles.”

Still, those successes failed to reassure White House officials that Reagan could handle the rough and tumble of an unscripted half-hour with reporters. From the early months of his

presidency in 1981, his meetings with the news media had clearly concerned his aides. In one of his first news conferences, he confused offensive and defensive missiles and mishandled questions about the possibility of winning a limited nuclear war in Europe. Said one longtime California associate: “He is rarely deterred by facts.”

Many observers blamed his stumbling performance in answering questions about sales of arms to Iran shortly after the scheme was disclosed last November for his subsequent credibility crisis. As a Washington Post/ABC news poll earlier this month showed, 53 per cent of those asked did not believe that the President was telling all he knew about the arms shipments and the diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan rebels known as contras. In fact, after Reagan denied three times during his November news conference that there had been any “third country” involved in the weapons transfer, aides had to issue a correction half an hour later that acknowledged Israel’s

already widely documented role.

Last week Reagan failed to satisfy many observers about how he had made such a “misstatement.” Indeed, his answer may have raised new questions about his powers of comprehension. Said the President: “I did not know that I had said it in such a way as to seemingly deny Israel’s participation. And when they told me this and when I finished bumping my head, I said to them, ‘Quick, write down a correction of this. I didn’t realize that in there.’ Maybe I’d talked too long.”

Reagan also avoided direct answers to charges that he had initially tried to deny the whole arms deal. And he appeared to be confused about the circumstances under which then-national security adviser Robert McFarlane solicited his approval for the arms transfer. But Reagan clung to the two previously stated cornerstones of his defence: that he did not intend his overtures to Iran to “degenerate” into an arms-for-hostages trade and that he knew nothing about the diversion of those profits to the contras.

Republicans expressed delight at Reagan’s performance, which attracted so many journalists that at least 50 had to be turned away from the White House East Room. But the praise may have been partly a result of a concerted White House campaign to lower public expectations about the news conference. Earlier in the week Senate minority leader Robert Dole of Kansas had emerged from the Oval Office to declare that “the public doesn’t expect a detailed factual accounting.” He added: “They’re going to be looking at, is he healthy? Is he responding? Does he understand the question?” In that context, communications consultants said that Reagan scored well. But not all viewers were reassured by the President’s performance. Said George Reedy, a _ White House press sec§ retary under Democrat§ ic President Lyndon y Johnson: “The President ö knew enough facts, but I he didn’t look in cornai mand. People are concerned that important things happened under him of which he was unaware. He didn’t put that feeling to rest. In fact, he confirmed it.”

Reagan’s next hurdle may involve revelations about the diversion of funds to the contras. Indeed, the worst development for the White House last week may have been the decision by the House and Senate committees investigating the arms affair to combine their hearings, beginning on May 5. As well, in a compromise with independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, the committees granted limited immunity from prosecution to the two key men who could shed further light on Reagan’s involvement: former national security adviser John Poindexter and his fired aide, Lt.-Col. Oliver North. According to a schedule released last week, they could testify as early as June. Until then, members of the administration have good reason to remain in a state of nervous expectation. Said one presidential adviser: “[Poindexter and North] could cause a real crisis in this town.”

—MARCI McDONALD in Washington