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A Wall Twice Cracked: Can Reagan Survive More?

February 15, 1987|Richard E. Neustadt | Richard E. Neustadt is professor of public administration at Harvard University. He is the author, with Ernest May, of "Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers" (Free Press).

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — With William J. Casey and Robert C. McFarlane back on the front page--each in so sad a way--and the Tower Commission interviewing the President about the Iran- contra affair, it is hard to keep one vital factor in perspective: President Reagan's seventh year in office was bound to be a letdown from the moment the Republicans lost the Senate, despite his hard campaigning last fall.

Trouble was assured by the state of arms-control negotiations after Reykjavik and by Reagan's persistence in demanding defense hikes and domestic budget cuts without the salve of revenue increases. Lacking Republican Senate leadership to hold the fort on Capitol Hill, Reagan faces the worst prospect for positive congressional relations since his first inaugural.

During the seventh year, in any case, his Administration's energy, to say nothing of his own, was sure to fade as key advisers slipped into the private sector and old policy feuds froze all action. Moreover, every month the politics of the 1988 presidential election will take a tighter hold on the attention of the media, the government, our allies and our adversaries. Those old enough to recall the problems faced by Harry S. Truman in 1951 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959--and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, before World War II broke out--have seen this before.

What the Iran- contra affair added was a heightened vulnerability to open disrespect, a likelihood that Reagan would be not just a lame duck, but one without feathers. Respect and ridicule are near neighbors; one can easily tip into the other if appearances so decree. That's what this affair threatens.

Last May, I told a former student, who is now at the White House, that in "real time"--which for me meant 1950 when I last served there--the Korean War was still six weeks away. In late November (after the Iran- contra affair came to light), he sent me a card saying the war had broken out. Iran- contra could become as tough politically for Reagan as Korea was for Truman, but up to now the signs suggest not.

The Iran- contra business has cracked Reagan's credibility in two places. One more crack will probably tumble the wall. He starts his seventh year with less room for mistakes in personal public relations than at any time since the assassination attempt of March, 1981. His credibility since then--the Teflon for his presidency, so to speak--derived in no small measure from his gallantry on that occasion. Now Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the gung-ho Marine, and Donald T. Regan, the "chief" who wasn't there, combine with Reagan's own accounts to threaten the whole thing. It still seems rather formidable in public, but in Washington the cracks show.

What are those cracks? The first was Reagan's own. Last November, on national television, he discussed his arms shipments to Iran and justified them in geopolitical terms--a search for influence with moderates in future regimes--explicitly dismissing as "coincidental" the release of two Americans (and hopes for more) held hostage.

Public approval of Reagan's conduct in office immediately tumbled from 65% to 47%. It climbed back to 52% in December--and could go higher--but 10 points, or thereabouts, are probably gone for good. Imperfectly, this loss reflects widespread astonishment that Reagan, of all people, was sending arms to ayatollahs. Astonishment apparently was mixed with disbelief in his asserted reason. Trading arms for hostages seemed far more likely to have been his real reason--more concrete and also more in Reagan's character--suggesting that he did not tell the truth. "They like me but they don't believe me," he is quoted as saying to Bob Dole (R-Kan.), then Senate majority leader. A good summary.

By the time Reagan supposedly said that, a second crack had appeared. Actually, this was someone else's credibility loss, reflecting on the President: Donald Regan's. Since early 1985, when he took the job of White House chief of staff, Regan bragged about his dominance atop a hierarchy of his own contriving. Now he insisted he knew nothing about the National Security Council staff's intricate diversion of funds from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras .

There followed an outpouring of "inside the Beltway" criticism, coupled with assorted calls from Reagan devotees for Regan's head. These left the President apparently unmoved, or unwilling to take precipitous action--for Regan remains. And that situation creates the second crack.

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