PALM SPRINGS — With his annual winter vacation in the desert behind him, President Reagan returns to Washington today to face a new year and old problems surrounding his presidency.
For the President, the towering hedges of a finely manicured estate, the clear skies and balmy temperatures offered a shelter of sorts from the storm of controversy that enveloped him as winter arrived in Washington and 1986 drew to a close.
Now, even before he can turn to the difficulties posed by the Iran arms affair and such personnel matters as the uncertain state of health of hospitalized CIA Director William J. Casey, Reagan himself will be hospitalized Sunday for prostate surgery and follow-up tests 18 months after he underwent cancer surgery.
In short, after a respite in which the Iran arms sales and the related diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan rebels generally disappeared from the front pages of the nation's newspapers, Reagan is confronting a troublesome period of personal and political trials as he enters his final years in office.
The 75-year-old President will enter Bethesda Naval Medical Center just outside Washington on Sunday. That day, he will undergo a colonoscopy, in which a team of doctors will examine his colon to check for signs of a recurrence of the colon cancer for which he underwent surgery in July, 1985.
Then, on Monday, Reagan is scheduled to undergo a surgical procedure to widen his urinary tract to relieve discomfort caused by an enlarged prostate gland.
One day after the operation, the 100th Congress will be sworn in, presenting Reagan with a political landscape he has never faced in Washington: Democratic control of the House and Senate.
With the new Congress will come the formal beginning of new investigations to determine the details of the arms-selling operation and the financing of the anti-Sandinista contras.
The anticipated demands on the White House of the congressional probes and the investigation being conducted by an independent counsel led Reagan to appoint David M. Abshire, the former U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to a special position to handle all issues within the White House related to the Iran arms matter.
Reagan's respite from just such problems was spent exactly as he and his wife, Nancy, have passed the New Year's holiday for about two decades--at the sprawling estate of former ambassador and publisher Walter H. Annenberg and his wife, Leonore Annenberg, Reagan's first protocol chief.
Longtime Political Allies
For 20 years, in office and out, victorious from campaigns just past, or nursing the wounds of defeat, Reagan has welcomed the new year with longtime political allies and with the bedrock of well-to-do conservatives who have nurtured his political career and advised him in times of trouble.
And so it was Wednesday night at Sunnylands, the Annenberg property near the intersection of two wide thoroughfares named after Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.
Hope was on the guest list, an abbreviated version of which was made public by the White House. Actor Jimmy Stewart also was on the list for the formal affair. So, too, were Secretary of State George P. Shultz; Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger; Charles Z. Wick, the director of the U.S. Information Agency; retiring Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) and Charles Price, the U.S. ambassador to Britain.
But the reminder of the problems facing the President was not in the list of those present. And certainly it was not in the round of social activities of the President's six-day visit to Southern California that began Saturday in Los Angeles.
Rather, it was in the name of one regular guest at the Annenberg party who was not in attendance Wednesday night: White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan.
Regan has offered recollections of the arms sale project that differed from other senior officials at the time, and he has come under sharp attack from Administration allies for his conduct as details of the affair have become known.
Regan, who attended the party last year, and was a frequent guest in his previous role of Treasury secretary, was said by the White House to be spending the holiday in Florida, away from the intensity of Washington and apart from the President and two Cabinet secretaries--Shultz and Weinberger--who voiced strenuous objections to the Iran arms sales.
But, aside from Regan's absence--he also missed the party two years ago--there was nothing out of the ordinary apparent during the Reagan vacation.
"Usual round of paper work--written national security briefing," White House spokesman Larry Speakes reported, his shorthand delivery underscoring the message to reporters that little of an official nature was taking place at Sunnylands.
Nine rounds of golf in the morning, nine in the afternoon, Speakes said, referring to what is lightheartedly referred to as the non-golfing President's "annual" golf game played on Annenberg's private course.
"The score, as usual, is a state secret," the presidential spokesman intoned, delivering a joke that predates by half a decade the more serious problems now facing Reagan. "The score has never leaked."