Here's a pre-campaign year look at contending White House camps
Reports of contentiousness between the President Reagan's principal advisers never quite vanish here. Nor do the caveats from Mr. Reagan's second-echelon aides that disagreements are merely standard and useful option-developing relationships, as they put it.
What's the situation today, inside the ''camps'' at the White House, as American politics in general and this administration in particular head into the early days of a presidential campaign?
One question worth pressing here is: Do these personal differences ever reach the level of outright anger? One of the Big Four, who asked for anonymity, said in an interview a few days ago: ''Not more than just a few times. And not at all in recent months. What no one seems to understand is that we all basically get along with one another.''
The President's ''Big Four'' advisers are Edwin Meese III, William P. Clark, James A. Baker III, and Michael K. Deaver.
From a personal and ideological standpoint, national security adviser Clark and presidential counselor Meese see pretty much eye to eye.
They lean toward the conservative point of view and seek whenever possible to keep Mr. Reagan pointed in that direction. And they both go back to Sacramento days when they were at then-Governor Reagan's right hand.
Mr. Baker, presidential chief of staff, is a Republican moderate, or so viewed. Mr. Deaver, deputy chief of staff (but much more than that in the Reagan's eyes) seems to be more of a non-ideologue.
They both look upon themselves as politically pragmatic, and they often advise the President that this or that is possible to get done, as opposed to telling him he must follow a philosophical course that, they feel, might end up in defeat.
It is this ''basic approach'' to what the President should be doing on many programs that has caused ''differences'' among the group, differences that all four acknowledge.
But they all hasten to add that they feel that those conflicts are relatively minor and that they have merely given the President the rationale for more than one option - and that Reagan likes to make his decisions based upon hearing such a presentation.
Of chief concern at top levels in the White House is what is perceived as a persisting effort from within the administration to undercut the relationship between national security adviser Clark and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. The common line, flowing from some sources at the White House second level and from some anti-Reagan sources in the State Department, is this: that Clark is elbowing out Shultz and that Clark's hard-line approach is most evident in the President's tough policies toward Central America.
Some of this complaining is coming from those who espouse a softer line in foreign relations and who thought they previously had seen in Mr. Shultz someone who would prevail on the President to moderate his stance toward the communists.
The thesis of those pushing (or leaking) this view is that Clark is nothing but an amateur in foreign affairs.
This opinion, showing up in more and more stories out of Washington, has come with the reports of Clark's position overshadowing Shultz's. The assertion from these sources is that Shultz was left entirely out of Reagan's tough-line initiative toward Nicaragua and El Salvador.
At top levels of the White House there seems to be a unified position among the others beside Clark in the Big Four on the so-called Clark-Shultz rift. They say it is vastly overblown. At that level, too, it is contended that Shultz still is riding high with the President and that he in no way is being undercut by Clark.
These top advisers deplore the ''leaks'' that have fed this Clark vs. Shultz story. Ed Harper, who served as deputy at the Office of Management and Budget and more recently as domestic affairs policy adviser to the President, reflects this view. He says: ''I don't think the President has been well served by the leaks that have gone on in the White House. But I think it is less a problem now than earlier in this administration.''
Mr. Harper, leaving the White House to go into industry, told reporters at breakfast the other morning that there was ''some tension'' at the top levels of White House management.
''But some tension won't hurt you,'' he added. Asked to pinpoint the amount of discord he had witnessed, Harper said: ''I've had the opportunity of being in a lot of organizations where I've seen people who don't like each other, don't get along with each other. That doesn't mean that the organization was not an effective organization.''
''Could the Reagan administration be more effective?'' Harper was asked. ''No organization is as effective as it could be,'' he replied diplomatically.
''But when you look back in history at the Franklin Roosevelt administration, you find that there was a lot more open warfare among some members of the White House staff and members of the Cabinet,'' he said. ''And my friend, Bryce Harlow , tells me there was shouting in the halls of the White House during the Eisenhower administration.''
Harper concludes that the tension level isn't harming this administration in the least. His criticism focuses elsewhere:
''Sometimes we could all benefit from more communication with each other. I think that one thing you find is that everyone has his own job to do. He goes out and does that - when in some ways the President and the greater good would be served by all of us talking to each other more.''