Murray Weidenbaum, departing chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, was talking about his ''goodbye'' to Mr. Reagan.
''I said to the President,'' he reported, ''that in all due modesty my parting gift to him was the interest rates, which have been declining since I quit.''
''And Mr. Reagan was nice enough not to say, 'Why didn't you quit sooner?' '' said the wry-humored Dr. Weidenbaum, who is returning to Washington University in St. Louis.
Weidenbaum staunchly affirmed that he had not been fired. ''More than 90 days before I resigned,'' he said, ''I had to let my landlord in St. Louis know I was leaving.'' He added with a smile: ''And he didn't leak the story. Do you think that could have happened here in Washington?''
In the course of the hour's back-and-forth, Weidenbaum also made it clear that he was leaving gracefully. He is not bitter. He still is supporting the President's economic program. ''The President,'' he said, ''sent me a very lovely note at a farewell dinner - a warm, personal note. He feels I helped him in his job.''
But Weidenbaum parts company with the President on the initiative to push through a constitutional amendment that would mandate a balanced budget. And he implied that he felt the United States doesn't have the capacity to increase military arms spending as fast as the President would like.
The colloquy between reporters and guest went like this:
There has been speculation that the ''palace guard'' around the President made it difficult for you to see the President. Did that enter into your decision to leave?
It is not a love feast over there. There are a lot of strong-willed people around the President. But it did not enter into my decision to leave. I had an adequate opportunity to present my advice on economic policy to the President. And he was always delighted that I was there to talk to him.
It is not the most serene environment (the White House). But so be it.
What will happen with interest rates?
The trend is downward.
Unemployment? Does the President now have a handle on it?
Yes, he's got a handle: the prospect of a growing economy. But it will be a matter of several months before unemployment begins to go down. The economy has to advance to make a dent in unemployment.
Your overall forecast?
The third quarter will be a bigger plus than the second.
But weren't you the economist who forecast last year that this year, economically, would come in like a lamb and go out like a lion?
It still could. Anyway, I was right on one count: It came in like a lamb.
Would you support a new tax increase bill next year?
I hope there will be no tax increase initiative next year. My heart is with simply making further budget cuts.
Do you still want the final 10 percent increment of the tax cut, set for next July?
Yes, it is important that we carry through with that tax reduction.
What about the theory that the President didn't really ''buy'' supply-side economics?
The President's approach (unlike that of the supply-siders) was always to cut spending.
Was the President's adoption of the big tax cut his way of applying discipline to the Congress - to make them come up with the spending cuts that were necessary after he got the tax reductions through? That is, was this Reagan's way of disciplining Congress?
Sure - that's possible.
(Former President Gerald R.) Ford's economic adviser, Paul McCracken, said he thought the tax cut should have been much less, say 5 percent - just enough to give the economy the shock it needed to stimulate it.
Five percent is not a great shock. It would have been marginal at best.
What did you think of the tax-increase bill passed (Aug. 19)?
I supported it.
But wasn't it inconsistent with supply-side economics?
We were not cutting spending enough.
But didn't the President goof - in providing such a big tax cut, leading to this big deficit?
In retrospect, in hindsight, it would have been better not to have the deficit.
So what did you advise him on the tax cut?
My view is that I owe it to the President to advise him in private - and not disclose what that advice was.
But is the President more concerned about budget deficits now?
Yes. Large budget deficits now are perceived as having a major impact on high interest rates.
One Reagan economist has confided that the President doesn't have much faith in economists. What do you say to that?
I think the President does have this view - and that he is right. Economists are too dogmatic. They are keen on selling their ideas.