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Chorus of Dismay Rings Out Deep in Heart of Reagan Country

March 01, 1987|JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writer

King Burstein, who had been lounging by the pool of the Balboa Bay Club, suddenly sat up in his chair. The man who calls himself Orange County's "most conservative Jewish Republican" had something to say about President Reagan, the nation and the Iran- contra scandal.

"This issue will fade away, believe me ," said the nattily attired Burstein, a longtime Republican Party activist and a member of Orange County's conservative Lincoln Club.

"People have short memories," he added, as several yachts glided by on the bay. "This whole thing could be dead in several months."

Yet even Burstein conceded that revelations about the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan contras had damaged the President's popularity throughout the nation--including Orange County, perhaps the heartland of Reagan's political support.

A series of interviews Saturday with Orange County residents produced strong criticism of the White House arms-for-hostages deals, angry words about Reagan's competency and expressions of concern from the President's die-hard supporters.

Few believed that the distressing news coming out of Washington, typified by Thursday's release of the Tower Commission report on the scandal, would be ending anytime soon.

"I think we need a new President," said Pat Gilliam, as she ate a quick lunch with her two children in the Mall of Orange. "I don't like the man (Reagan) and it's a very bad thing to have dealt arms to the Iranians the way he did. We had no business selling them anything."

Supporters Disheartened

Gilliam, who lives in Mission Viejo, said the Iran-arms revelations have damaged the nation's credibility abroad and disheartened the President's supporters at home.

"People once looked up to him," she said. "Now, I think, their attitudes will change. You know, the President really blew it. I'm so depressed, I don't even read the newspapers these days. You turn on the television, it's really bad news."

As she sat on a bench in the mall and licked an ice cream cone, Jacque Tamura, 17, mused that the Iran-arms story was "pretty scary stuff."

In her history class at Katella High School in Anaheim, she explained, students have been discussing Reagan's decline in the public opinion polls and his conduct of foreign policy. While some continue to support the President, others have been disillusioned by his performance.

"I feel kind of let down," said Tamura, who added that she had previously had respected Reagan for his "strong" opinions.

"I think he's trying to cover up a lot of his mistakes," she said. "I don't think he wants to tell the truth about some things. He says that he didn't know about some things . . . but we all think that he did. He's just not in control of the situation."

Aides Viewed Dimly

Some Reagan supporters said the scandal would disappear over time but criticized the way White House aides have handled the revelations so far.

Hal Burrows, pausing in the middle of a shopping day at the Orange mall, said Reagan's assistants would "get a handle on this thing soon . . . but they haven't done too good a job of that.

"The basic problem is, they (White House aides) tried to do something, but they realized it had to be done on the QT. It didn't work. So now Reagan will be tarnished a little."

Despite charges that Reagan had been a poor manager, Burrows said the President's place in history is secure, adding: "He's not a bad President because of what's happened. He's done good things and they will not be forgotten. He's a smart man."

Others had different views of the President's mental acumen.

Andy Fimiano, a resident of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, suggested that the President is a "buffoon" who would nonetheless ride out the controversy because he has surrounded himself with capable assistants.

"I just don't think he knows what's going on," he said, "but I think this will all blow over. Because he's detached, he'll be above the whole thing. Reagan will weather this problem, just like he's weathered others before."

Dr. Isabella Wiener of Laguna Hills said the President "has been a trusting soul, but he just doesn't seem to know what he's doing. He doesn't realize the terrible consequences of what he's done, even now."

Surrounded by Rich Friends

Wiener, gazing at a lone swimmer in the Balboa Bay Club pool, criticized Reagan as a "rich man's President" whose sole goal, it seemed, was to surround himself with rich friends and admirers.

"This man is out of touch," she said. "We tell the world that we don't pay homage to terrorists, and then we turn around and do just that. He doesn't understand this. How can our young people be encouraged by such a performance?"

Still, this was Orange County, Calif.--the conservative bastion where the President kicked off his reelection campaign three years ago before thousands of supporters at a rally at Fountain Valley's Mile Square Park.

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