WASHINGTON — President Reagan's rambling and sometimes confused performance at his nationally televised press conference this week had officials scrambling most of Thursday trying to clarify the Administration's position on a number of issues.
Officials said that Reagan realizes he "flubbed" a number of questions during the 30-minute session Wednesday. He told aides immediately afterward that he had lost his concentration because he spent too much time consulting his notes on which reporters to call on.
Reagan's answers on a number of issues required clarification from the White House. Minutes after the televised session, presidential spokesman Larry Speakes came into the press room to tell reporters that the President did not mean to give the go-ahead to build a space shuttle to replace the destroyed Challenger. He said it was the President's "intention" to build the orbiter but that a final decision had not been made.
Another official described Reagan's answer as "more an expression of his own personal desire" and not the outcome of an interagency discussion that has been under way since February. The Administration is grappling with a number of questions about the orbiter, including a fear that it could be "a dinosaur" in the face of advancing technology.
In addition, Reagan confused a question on a Supreme Court ruling upholding women's rights to abortions with another court ruling earlier in the week involving the rights of severely handicapped infants. Officials said he had been briefed on both decisions but apparently had been thrown off track by a previous questioner, who accused him of likening Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to Cuban President Fidel Castro, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat.
'Must Have Goofed'
At first, Reagan denied making the connection. When the reporter pointed out that he had made the statement only two days earlier in a speech, a perplexed Reagan said: "I must have goofed."
And the White House issued a formal clarification on the status of the second strategic arms treaty with the Soviet Union, declaring that it "no longer exists." The statement appeared to overrule Reagan's repeated insistence during the press conference that he has several months left before deciding whether to abandon the agreement, which was never ratified.
Nevertheless, White House officials professed to be unconcerned about Reagan's shaky performance. "Even Dwight Gooden has lost a few ballgames," said one official, comparing Reagan's usually top-notch oratorical gifts to the powerful fastballs of the New York Mets star pitcher.
They said that only "minor problems" resulted from Reagan's imprecisions and that they did not expect any lasting fallout. In fact, one top official marveled at "how easy the press was on him" in the news conference, the 37th of his presidency.
"He's gone from the Teflon President to the boomerang President," the official said. Because of Reagan's extraordinarily high popularity ratings, he is treated almost reverentially, the official said, adding: "Nobody wants to throw anything at him, because it comes back and hurts them."
But Reagan's halting delivery and his apparent unfamiliarity with some issues at the press conference could revive charges made during his 1984 reelection campaign that he is out of touch and, at 75, too old to be President.
"It's the biggest fight he's had since he took office--proving he still has the mental stamina and competence," an official said.
'Hitting Home Runs'
An aide said that, in a preparatory session Tuesday, Reagan's performance was "abysmal" but that, in a similar session the afternoon of the news conference, "he was hitting home runs."
Throughout his public career, Reagan has performed inconsistently when he does not have a script. In his first debate against Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale in October, 1984, Reagan delivered what was widely viewed as an alarmingly poor performance, giving rise to 48 hours of panic in the high command of his campaign. But Reagan regained control in a second debate, relying on his easy humor and talent for the one-line quip to reassure the public that he was still at the top of his game.