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President Reagan urged to `tell what he knows'. Can he `restore moral authority' to post?

Despite the steps taken over the Iran-contra affair, President Reagan is under growing pressure to tell the public what he knows and to shake up his staff of advisers. As Congress probes the scandal, the overriding long-term question is whether Mr. Reagan can restore the moral authority of the presidency. Republican friends as well as Democratic opponents urge the President to do more than he has done so far to persuade the American people that he is telling the truth, that he has control of his administration, and that US actions in the next two years will be bound by law.

Some political allies believe the difficulty lies with the President's advisers and that a housecleaning, especially at the White House, is crucial. Even US Secretary of State George Shultz indicated before an open hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that it is not too late for the President to call in all his aides and question them. His aides have sought counsel, Mr. Shultz commented, but maybe the President ``could persuade'' them to discuss their activities.

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``Let's get the dope out,'' he told the lawmakers.

But some observers who have long experience in Washington believe an effort is under way to protect the President by making it appear that the fault lies primarily with his aides. They find it hard to believe the President does not know that arms were being shipped to Iran to try to secure release of the American hostages and that funds that came from the Iranian sales were being channeled to the contra rebels in Nicaragua.

``We're going through a kind of ancient, barbaric war dance now - it's almost an ultimate in absurdity,'' says Clark Clifford, a lawyer and Democratic elder statesman. ``The President does not need to call in his aides, he knows what they did. He sees his national-security adviser daily and he had a relationship with [Lt. Col. Oliver] North. ... [Former national-security adviser John] Poindexter and North are not going to do those things without clearing it first.

``In three administrations I have seen that people do not do things without the President knowing it,'' says Mr. Clifford, who has served several Democratic presidents in high office, including secretary of defense.

Political observers say they believe the President can still recover from the crisis if he makes the decision to ``bite the bullet'' and let all the facts come out. They point to the wellspring of goodwill he enjoys among Americans, who tend to be forgiving of public leaders who acknowledge their mistakes.

``I'm pretty sure he can recover an amount of managerial positiveness in order to be as well as look more like a leader,'' says historian Robert Nisbet. ``But even that is questionable.''

It remains unclear whether the President is culpable because of a bad decision on foreign policy or because of a delegation of too much authority to subordinates and a failure to stay on top of policy. It also remains to be disclosed what Reagan himself knew about the Iran-Nicaraguan operations and when he knew it.

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Those familiar with the President and his style of operation say he in fact knows so little about the details of his policies and about the execution of them that he probably does not understand why the Iran affair has escalated into a full-fledged scandal. Nor is it ruled out by some that he has genuinely forgotten giving authority for various clandestine operations, which appear to violate the law.

While Reagan has admitted that ``mistakes were made,'' he has not indicated precisely what mistakes and who made them.

``It is not enough to admit a mistake, there has to be accountability,'' says presidential scholar Stephen Wayne of George Washington University.

The nation's response to the Iran-contra affair - a sharp drop in the President's approval ratings - appears to have been exacerbated by two factors. One is the remembrance of the Watergate scandal as well as misstatements by a number of Presidents, including Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, that misled the public. This is why the President risks fueling public cynicism about government if the matter is not quickly cleared up.

Also aggravating the problem is the fact that money went to the Iran of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a country that embarrassed the United States by holding Americans hostages and continues to scorn and embarrass it. Some analysts think that if this crisis involved only the Nicaraguan contras, the public would not have been quite so aroused. The recent US disinformation campaign against Libya, for instance, seemed to concern the general public much less.

Some political allies voice concern that the President's stubbornness may deter him from acting forcefully to restore the credibility of his office. In the past six years Reagan has won a reputation as more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. But it is also true that he has often dug in his heels on policies because of his ideological convictions and refused to accept the advice of his top aides.

In 1981, for instance, the President pushed through a three-pronged economic program that included a tax cut, although his economic advisers warned him of the risks of incurring huge budget deficits. Reagan has also broken out of the unratified second strategic-arms pact, SALT II Treaty, contrary to the advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff. And he continues to remain uncompromisingly wedded to his Strategic Defense Initiative, though even some senior top aides do not believe in his vision of a nationwide defense shield in space.

Reagan's support for the Nicaraguan contra rebels stems from his deep antipathy for communism and desire to support ``freedom fighters'' around the world. He is determined not to see the establishment of another Marxist regime in the Western Hemisphere, even though the American public has opposed aid for the contras. This determination has led him into acts that may have violated the law, such as the mining of Nicaraguan harbors.

Dean Rusk, former secretary of state, says that the facts of the Iranian-contra affair should be brought out and, above all, the procedures of the National Security Council operation revised. It is ``bad practice,'' he says, for anyone on the NSC staff to do things without the knowledge of the members of the NSC, i.e., the President, the vice-president, the secretaries of state and defense, and the director of central intelligence.

``It is time that those NSC procedures are straightened out and the position of the secretary of state as chief adviser on foreign policy be confirmed, that it be recognized that he is the principal executor of policy,'' says Secretary Rusk.

Mr. Rusk suggests that reports of a disruption of US foreign policy as a result of the Iranian-contra affair are much exaggerated. But, he says, ``the President has to start to work at his job and dig in and make sure he's in control of his administration.''

By and large Ronald Reagan has led a political life free of major troubles. The one crisis that arose when he was governor of California (the discovery that several aides were homosexuals) appeared for a while to devastate Reagan, who, according to biographer Lou Cannon, went into seclusion for a period. But he came back to reorganize his staff and went on to complete a first and second term successfully.

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