Reagan's crisis detachment. President seems to prefer letting events take their course
With the White House embattled by revelations surrounding the Iran-contra scandal, President Reagan appears to remain detached from the growing crisis. Political friends voice concern that, despite efforts from Republican and Democratic elder statesmen to persuade him to try to put the crisis behind by taking decisive action himself, Mr. Reagan seems to prefer letting events take their course.
According to some GOP sources, the President is irritated by the intense pressure from GOP leaders. But, they say, he will take action, i.e., shaking up his White House staff, when he thinks the moment right. That could be after the issue begins to command less television coverage because of the Christmas holidays.
``He knows what has to be done and he will do it,'' says one former Republican campaign official. ``He should have acted long before now, but this is not an easy thing for him....''
Other Republican allies remain dubious. They see the White House trying to tough it out, hoping that the situation will quiet down as House and Senate investigating committees go home for the holidays.
New facts or allegations are coming to light daily, however, adding to a welter of ambiguities and contradictions in White House positions. (Iran-contra update, Page 2.) Unless the President moves, say supporters as well as political opponents, the spotlight will continue to focus on the scandal and further damage the Reagan presidency:
The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to call Attorney General Edwin Meese III and White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan to testify.
The White House said yesterday that Mr. Regan is willing to testify before Congress in open hearings on what he knew about the covert sale of arms to Iran and diversion of the profits to the contra rebels in Nicaragua. It also stressed that former White House aides, including former national-security adviser John Poindexter and his aide Oliver North, should tell Congress what they know instead of invoking the Fifth Amendment.
Rep. Michael Barnes (D) of Maryland is asking the congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra affair to look into press reports that some of the money from the sale of weapons to Iran were diverted to conservative US groups, including an organization called the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty.
Vice-President George Bush has called for a full accounting from national-security aide, Donald P. Gregg, for meetings with a former Central Intelligence Agency employee, Felix Rodriguez, said to be involved in supply flights for the Nicaraguan contra rebels. This is the first time Mr. Bush's staff has been linked with Mr. Rodriguez regarding the Nicaraguan flights, made when US law prohibited military aid to the contras.
Meanwhile, the President's standing with the American people continues to suffer. While some at the White House think the Iran scandal is largely an ``inside-the-Beltway'' problem, polls indicate otherwise. A survey published by the Los Angeles Times yesterday reported that 78 percent of some 1,800 people polled think there is a White House cover-up of the scandal and 60 percent believe it is as serious as the Watergate affair.
Enormous pressure has been put on the President to dismiss Mr. Regan, who replaced former chief of staff James Baker III at the beginning of the second Reagan term. Political advisers on the outside and even low-level officials in the White House say a thorough shake-up of the Regan-appointed staff is crucial if the President is to restore his ability to govern.
But Regan vows that he did not know of the diversion of Iran sales funds to the contras and that there is no reason for him to resign. ``I'll tell you one thing, I'm not leaving the White House,'' he is quoted as saying by Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas.
Regan's aides seem to think that the White House can overcome the crisis if they simply hang tough. ``It'll take about six months but we'll get over it,'' says one close assistant. The President is known not to like to fire subordinates, even when they come under a cloud of suspicion for wrongdoing. His style is to let matters build up until external circumstances force a resignation.
In this instance Senator Dole has not called for Regan's resignation, but he has suggested that the President appoint a special adviser, such as former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee to help him on the Iran issue. But longtime political operatives think this would not work as long as Regan and his aides remain.
The paramount unanswered question in the Iran affair is whether President Reagan knew about the Iran-contra operation. Knowing his passive style of management - one of not being interested in or keeping informed about details of policy - political friends and independent analysts suggest he may not have been told. But they also do not rule out that he was told but either forgot or did not fully understand the substance or the diplomatic and legal implications of his decisions.
``I don't think the President understands how dangerous the situation is,'' says a senior administration official. ``One can only assume that either he's a real softie and not good at firing people or that he'll just let things build to a point where Regan will finally resign.''
Still other observers believe that the President did know about the contra affair and that this accounts for his unwillingness to get to the bottom of the affair, as many in Washington have urged him to do.