WASHINGTON — Discussing President Reagan and the Iran- contra scandal on network television recently, a comedian declared: "The question is not, 'What did he know and when did he know it?' . . . The real question is, 'What does he know, and does he know he knows it?' "
And Johnny Carson quipped the other night that Reagan has issued new instructions at the White House: "From now on, he must be awakened from his nap whenever there's an arms deal. Before that, the only thing you could wake him for was nuclear war and 'Murder She Wrote.' "
Lampooning presidents has long been a staple for this country's comedians. They jeered about Gerald R. Ford's stumbling, Jimmy Carter's toothy smile, Lyndon B. Johnson's penchant for picking up his pet beagles by their ears. And Carson once described the 1976 Ford-Carter election as a choice between "fear of the known and fear of the unknown."
Further back in American history, the barbs were downright savage. Seizing on Abraham Lincoln's long arms, cartoonists portrayed him as a baboon. Of John Adams, the nation's second President, one wag said: "Whether he is spiteful, playful, witty, kind, cold, drunk, sober, angry, easy, stiff, jealous, cautious, confident, close, open, it is always in the wrong place or to the wrong person."
But for Reagan, the current round of jokes represents a problem that is potentially no laughing matter. In response to the Iran-contra scandal, Reagan has declared that he did not know all that was being done.
That explanation has laid the President open to a kind of lampooning that stirs genuine concern among his supporters because it threatens to erode his ability to govern at a time when Reagan can ill afford such damage. The new crop of jokes raises questions about whether the President is in charge of the nation's government--or is capable of being in charge--especially in the sensitive realm of national security.
What worries some Republican advisers, said one former Reagan aide who has maintained his ties to the White House, is the possibility, reflected in the satire, that "the President now is being viewed as an amiable old man rather than as a broad-stroke President."
"If that type of thing becomes very broad-based, that could hurt," said another Reagan adviser, Richard B. Wirthlin, a Republican pollster who regularly samples the President's popularity and works closely with the White House.
"Clearly, the President is more vulnerable to being the butt of jokes now than he was three or four months ago," he said.
"It's important for him to be supported by the grass roots," Wirthlin said. "There are going to be battles with Congress and he has a better chance of winning these battles if he has that support."
The importance of maintaining an image of strength and control is particularly vital for Reagan now that he has only two years left in his final term and Democrats hold majorities in both houses of Congress.
Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) knows the damage that can befall a President when humorists' jokes about him begin to draw blood. He was Ford's chief of staff, serving a President whose public image was interwoven with comedian Chevy Chase's imitations of his stumbling.
'Butt of Jokes'
"You have to be careful," Cheney said, "any time you get to the point that a politician is the butt of jokes."
The consequence of the widespread gags about Ford was that the President and his advisers were constantly on the defensive over his purported clumsiness, making it harder for them to promote Ford's strengths as a chief executive.
Jabs at Reagan are not new; they were being made long before he reached the White House. A veteran adviser recalled recently that when Reagan ran successfully for governor of California in 1966, he was derided as "that dumb actor who had to memorize his lines."
And Reagan has developed a matchless ability to deflect the arrows of political criticism with his own brand of self-deprecating humor. The President, soon to turn 76, seldom gives a speech without making a wisecrack about his age.
Larry J. Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, said that for now he believes Reagan's affability will "insulate him from the corrosion of humor." But he warned of the possibility that jokes about Reagan will take hold and create a common view that he is slipping.
'Seen as Senile Grandfather'
"It would be devastating," Sabato said. "He'd be seen as the senile grandfather at family gatherings, one to be humored but not paid attention to."
Indeed, there is just such a sharp edge to much of the humor now being directed at Reagan.
Recently, for example, a network news show featured a selection of anti-Reagan comedy routines, many of which poked fun at him for supposedly being forgetful and oblivious to the events around him.