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White House staff: under Reagan's magnifying glass

With 1981 fast closing, the Reagan White House is taking a hard look at the operations and staff that brought the administration many successes and some grief in its first year.

''All operations in the White House are under a year-end review,'' presidential counselor Edwin Meese III told the Monitor.

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The year-end review provides the White House with a convenient vehicle for appraising the future of national security adviser Richard V. Allen, now on leave. The case already had become easier to handle when the Justice Department last week gave Mr. Allen a partial reprieve by closing its inquiry into the $1, 000 Japanese magazine honorarium intercepted by Allen.

The Justice Department is still looking into the gift of two watches and other matters. Nevertheless, some in the White House feel Allen will return to his job.

In any case, the way has been opened for the White House to address troubling areas pinpointed by the Allen affair - the Reagan team's ethical and administrative standards. The National Security Council staff and the foreign policy link at the White House through Mr. Meese has been particularly criticized.

Last week - more than two months after he had turned the Allen matter quietly over to the Justice Department - Meese disclosed that White House lawyers had begun looking into questions not covered by the Justice Department inquiry.

The White House had been criticized by public interest groups like Common Cause for not early launching an inquiry of its own. While the US Justice Department quite properly is charged with inquiries into criminal wrongdoing, there are other areas that fall to the White House, its chief of staff, and ultimately the President himself to enforce.

These areas involve the public trust, and are outlined in executive orders covering use of public office for private gain, giving preferential treatment to organizations or persons, losing independence or impartiality of action, or undermining public confidence in the integrity of government, Common Cause says.

Such self-scrutiny is tough for any White House to undertake, political observers say, and is particularly awkward in this case. The President's lawyer Fred Fielding is a close friend and investment partner with Mr. Allen. Business links run from Allen to Peter D. Hanaford, a former business partner with presidential aide Michael Deaver in a firm that managed Reagan's public affairs from 1974 to the election.

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''Sure it gets complicated,'' says Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer. ''Any situation gets complicated when people have known each other for years. When you deal with possibly improper action you have a peer situation. But in the last few years we've seen Congress able to take action against its own members.''

What was needed, Mr. Wertheimer says, is ''for the White House chief of staff to report: 'We have looked at this matter and nothing is wrong. Or this was wrong, and we're taking these steps to correct it.' ''

Presidential historian James McGregor Burns observes that reluctance to seize responsibility in such cases is customary.

''This is very standard presidential behavior - in that lies the fascination, '' Mr. Burns says. ''What to outsiders would seem rational, quick action that exorcises the problem very early - that is not done.

''It goes back to the almost family feeling that develops in the White House, and the terrific feeling of us-against-them, of mutual protection.''

President Carter was hurt by ''that slow hemorrhage of confidence in executive decision, and of being able to stay on top of things,'' by the long delay in resolution of the Bert Lance case, involved banking links between the President and his budget director, and the inquiry into drug allegations concerning his closest aide Hamilton Jordan, and campaign manager Tim Kraft.

Criticism for inability to take command even afflicted Franklin Delano Roosevelt. ''This was a great criticism of FDR,'' Burns notes, ''that he had people he was having trouble with or who were disloyal. Roosevelt's technique was usually to avoid confrontation, not to take action. He got away with it because there were broad political things working in his favor.''

The White House is caught between two competing concerns when something like the Allen affair arises, say presidential experts. The conflict is between concern for due process - giving the accused his day in court - and the ''Caesar's wife principle,'' protecting the President at any cost from even the appearance of wrongdoing.

In the Allen case, the Reagan White House has largely left it to Allen to defend his character and explain his actions. Similarly, in the Lance case, the White House did not talk to Lance for several weeks - which reportedly deeply offended Lance. Eventually, after a partial clearing of Lance, Mr. Carter delivered his ''Bert, I'm proud of you'' public embrace, for which Carter was later criticized.

In a conflict between protecting the White House staff and protecting the President, the staff often gets sacrificed, observes Burns.

''In a presidency - unlike a parliamentary system - the president is going to be there,'' Burns says. ''He's not going to leave, except in dire circumstances. Hence the change has to take place in the staff. The staff is expendable. It has to be expendable.''

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