WASHINGTON — White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan touched off a furor in Congress on Thursday over his suggestion that the Administration opposes any change in U.S. policy toward South Africa, partly because it would deprive American women of diamonds.
Although the remark was attributed to a "senior White House official" when it appeared Thursday in the Baltimore Sun, a White House spokesman acknowledged later that the unnamed official was Regan. The comment was made in an interview with reporters Wednesday night.
The newspaper quoted him as saying that a House-passed bill requiring divestiture in South Africa would deprive Americans of many raw materials, including diamonds. He then added: "Are the women of America prepared to give up all their jewelry?"
The controversy raised by the remark is reminiscent of the widespread negative reaction to Regan's suggestion in an interview last year that women have little interest in arms control negotiations because they do not understand missile "throw-weights."
Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), a leading critic of Reagan's South African policy, said that the White House chief of staff has "sunk to a new level of sexism" with his remark about jewelry. "I don't think American women want to enslave 28 million other human beings just to have their diamonds," he said.
Christopher J. Matthews, spokesman for House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said Regan's comment reflects a lack of sensitivity at the White House. "Who's running the show down there--Marie Antoinette?" he asked. (It is commonly reported that Marie Antoinette, the 18th-Century queen of France, declared on being told that peasants had no bread, "Let them eat cake.")
Matthews added: "This sounds like 'Diamond Don' Regan. Women don't care about throw-weights. They only care about carats. How many people must die to keep this crowd in diamonds?"
'All Carat, No Stick'
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) predicted that the remark "will further expose their policy to the ridicule it deserves." He added: "What this proves is that the President's policy toward South Africa is all carat and no stick."
The Regan remark was viewed as a setback by Republicans such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who are trying to foster a compromise between Congress and the Administration on South African policy.
"Don Regan probably, in retrospect, would not have made that comment if he had known the excitement it would create," Lugar said.
In Regan's defense, White House spokesman Albert T. Brashear noted that diamonds are not the only material that Regan noted would be limited by divestiture in South Africa. According to the Sun, he also mentioned chrome and emphasized that diamonds are needed in the United States for industrial purposes, as well as for jewelry.
The reaction in Congress was perhaps intensified because Helen Thomas of United Press International reported a more vivid version of Regan's quote: "If we don't have a source, are American women willing to give up their diamonds?"
Thomas later acknowledged that she obtained the quote "secondhand," and sources present at the interview confirmed that the Sun version was accurate.
Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Regan's remark was "not only ignorant, but insulting to the compassion and intelligence of American women." He said it "illustrates all too clearly that the Reagan Administration underestimates the American people's commitment to ending apartheid in South Africa."
"It's an insult to the intelligence of American women to think all they care about are baubles, bangles and beads," Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) added. "Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but not when the diamonds come from the bloody land of apartheid."
Times staff writers Eleanor Clift, Karen Tumulty and Bob Secter contributed to this story.