WASHINGTON — Perhaps someone should have sounded a bell Wednesday night as President Reagan came into the ring to face the White House press corps for a televised news conference. The event had received the kind of combative advance hype of a Thrilla in Manila or Wrestlemania II. The dilemma for the press was how to get tough with Reagan over his sale of arms to Iran without appearing to bully the nation's all-time favorite nice old man.
There were no knockdowns. Reagan won it on points. After only 10 or 15 minutes, the press began to look mean and picky. Yes, the President made factual errors, probably more than his usual share, and once or twice seemed so flustered that one feared he would lose his cool, or his warmth, either of which would have been scary. But he hung in there and the viewing audience probably feels he now has suffered enough for whatever mistakes he has made in foreign policy this year.
All three networks covered the press conference live, but only one, NBC, stayed on the air with exhaustive reaction and analysis. (ABC beat an almost immediate retreat to regular programming.) Indeed, NBC's report would have seemed like overkill, but for the fact that the persistence yielded an unexpected dividend. White House correspondent Chris Wallace was able to report a clarification of the President's remarks issued by the White House moments before NBC signed off and minutes after the other two networks already had.
Wallace was standing on the White House grounds talking to anchor Tom Brokaw when his colleague, Andrea Mitchell, sprinted out to him from the press room to hand him the clarification. It admitted that the President misspoke when he repeatedly insisted Israel was unaware of the secret U.S. arms shipments to Iran.
A correction so speedily issued was "something that I have never seen before in my years at the White House," Wallace told Brokaw, who then opined, "It just seems to me that it re-underlines and reaffirms, if you will, Chris, that the President is not on top of this situation. . . . That doesn't say much about the President's hands on the reins of foreign policy, does it?"
For much of the press conference, Reagan looked pained and defensive. But when late in the proceedings a reporter said he'd been defensive, Reagan took the offensive.
"What you've disappointed me the most in is suggesting that I sound defensive up here," Reagan said, almost scowling (the camera angle at this point was particularly flattering to him). "I've just been trying to answer all your questions as well as I can, and I don't feel that I have anything to defend about at all."
If there was a body blow during the evening, that was it, from a TV viewer's perspective.
Like a Capra hero--like James Stewart, maybe--Reagan had taken all the pushing and shoving he was going to take and now he was lashing back. There was a righteousness in his voice. The press looked almost petty.
Ma and Pa America must have been saying to themselves, "He's doing his best. Why don't those Washington smart alecks leave him alone?"
At times, the President behaved like a student trying to remember details on which he had been drilled, as undoubtedly he had. He came armed with four justifications for the secret arms deal, and he kept using them to answer every question--even questions about his credibility. Finally, even he began to tire of reciting them, and after listing three of them for Sam Donaldson, Reagan said, "and there was a fourth item also, as I pointed out."
Donaldson had baited the President with, "How can you justify such duplicity?" There may not have been such an accusatory tone at a presidential press conference since the Nixon days, and Dan Rather's infamous cheek.
Polls show the public's opinion of Reagan's foreign-policy prowess slipping. But his overall approval rating does not appear to have been affected. No matter how much the press and Congress try to keep it alive, the Iran issue well may have run its course with the telecitizenry.
They don't want to see Reagan take any more grief for this.
As he departed the podium and ambled down the hall, the same one from which he makes his "Here's Ronnie" appearance, Reagan did not seem as jovial or congenial as after most press conferences. There was some dejection in his walk, and when a reporter called out, "Will you come back soon?", there did not appear to be a reply. But that was a rather disingenuous question--like the townspeople in "High Noon" expecting ol' Coop to retain his badge and let bygones be bygones.
Or maybe the President's departure was a little more like the dear old carnival con-man's balloon exit from the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz.' The wizard had been revealed to be something of a humbug, but the people loved him anyway, and it was sad to see him go. But no, this analogy should probably be saved for Inauguration Day, 1989.