WASHINGTON — President Reagan, bidding for bipartisan support as he struggles to escape the quicksands of the Iran- contra scandal, told Congress in his State of the Union address Tuesday that the nation and the world are watching to see "if we go forward together in the national interest, or if we let partisanship weaken us."
"Much is at stake," Reagan declared, portraying the Administration's secret dealings with Iran as a calculated gamble to advance U.S. interests in a strategic area of the world and to free American hostages from "barbaric captivity."
Making his first major public appearance and speaking out on the Iran-contra controversy for the first time since undergoing prostate surgery Jan. 5, Reagan discussed the matter only briefly in a 35-minute speech that included sharp criticism of Congress for slashing his foreign aid and defense requests.
The President, in his sixth State of the Union speech since winning the White House in 1980, again rejected the counsel of advisers who have urged him to admit that the Iranian affair was a mistake. Instead, without mentioning that he had sanctioned arms sales to the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or that funds had been diverted to the rebels in Nicaragua, Reagan said that he had a "major regret . . . with regard to our action in Iran. It did not work, and for that I assume full responsibility."
Grim-faced as he commented on the Iran affair before the traditional joint session of Congress, Reagan drew applause from Republicans but only silence from most Democrats. At one point, Vice President George Bush stood to applaud a line about the economy and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), seated beside Bush directly behind Reagan, did not.
Out of Public Eye
"Now, ladies and gentlemen of the Congress," Reagan declared, turning his attention to other issues and drawing another burst of applause from Republicans, "why don't we get to work?" Reagan had counted on his speech--perhaps the most crucial of his presidency--to demonstrate to the public's satisfaction that he was back--in good health and in control of the government after being out of the public eye for a month following the Christmas holidays and recuperation from his surgery.
Attacking Congress for reducing his request for U.S. security assistance to free nations by 21% this year and cutting his defense requests by a total of $85 billion over the last three years, the President called on legislators to support a defense and foreign affairs budget "that says 'yes' to protecting our country."
And Reagan, who will turn 76 on Feb. 6, warned Congress that he is in a fighting mood when it comes to support for the contras, whose cause he has passionately advocated throughout his presidency. While Congress lifted its ban on direct U.S. military aid to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas late last year, the Iran-contra scandal is believed to have raised new doubts in the House and Senate about the wisdom of Reagan's position.
"Nicaraguan freedom fighters have never asked us to wage their battle," he declared, "but I will fight any effort to shut off their lifeblood and consign them to death, defeat or a life without freedom. There must be no Soviet beachhead in Central America."
Reagan discussed the Iran arms sale amid signs that Republicans, who have been among his severest critics on that subject, are beginning to rally to his side. The Republican National Committee distributed a "Talking Points" pamphlet defending the initiative and both Senate Assistant Minority Leader Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, who have criticized Reagan, spoke out in his defense Tuesday after meeting with him at the White House.
Still, the controversy, which has spawned investigations by an independent counsel and two congressional committees, has sharply eroded the President's credibility with the public and threatens to be a political issue throughout most of this year and perhaps the remainder of Reagan's presidency.
In declaring the goals of the Iran initiative worthy, Reagan said: "I do not believe it was wrong to try to establish contacts with a country of strategic importance or to try to save lives. And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so."
Pledges 'Whatever Action'
Reagan reiterated a pledge to "get to the bottom of this" and declared: "I will take whatever action is called for."
"But in debating the past," said the President, who throughout his speech emphasized looking ahead and not dwelling on the past, "we must not deny ourselves the successes of the future. Let it never be said of this generation of Americans that we became so obsessed with failure that we refused to take risks that could further the cause of peace and freedom in the world."