Ronald Reagan had done it twice before, but could he do it again? During the 1980 presidential campaign he stepped onto the stage with Jimmy Carter and amiably dispelled the fear that he was a trigger-happy warmonger. After fumbling badly in his first debate with Walter F. Mondale in 1984, he won the second by simply not falling off the podium.
The same "expectations gap" worked in President Reagan's favor Wednesday night. The Tower Commission report had painted him as sleepwalking through his presidency. He was "flustered" when he read the conclusions. He could not remember making the most important decision of his presidency. He could not choose between his former chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, and his wife. So, after his speech to the nation, most Americans were relieved to see that the President was not shuffling around the Oval Office in his bathrobe. In fact, it was one of his better performances.
Critics point out that reading a script on a TelePrompTer for 12 minutes is not the same as responding to questions at a press conference, or demonstrating the capacity to handle the 24-hour-a-day demand of leading the Western world. The President cannot recover his credibility, they say, because once you've seen the girl without her makeup, the romance is never the same--no matter how pretty she makes herself on special occasions.
It is true that Reagan never explained how he could boldly tell the American people that there was "no basis" to the Iran arms-sales story when it first broke. Yes, the issue will drag on for months as probers seek the answer to the most explosive question--where the money went--and the President's former National Security Council adviser, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, and former NSC staff member, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, finally tell what the President really knew and when.
But critics, and some of Reagan's friends, go too far in demanding a new management style from him. We should no more expect a "new Reagan" than we should have believed that there would be a "new Nixon" after the Checkers speech. Even as Reagan admitted mistakes and accepted responsibility for the Iran- contra scandal it was clear that he hated doing so. He then blamed former subordinates, and even found a new villain--a bad filing system.
Moreover, trying to turn Reagan into a hands-on manager is a bad idea. To get this crisis of competence behind him, his Administration must make solid accomplishments.
Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has thus handed the President a gift. The Soviet proposal to eliminate medium-range missiles in Europe is an old Reagan idea, so an eventual deal is a "no brainer." The real test is whether the Reagan Administration also can get our allies to strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization militarily and politically while our missiles are being withdrawn from the Continent.
Central America is a greater challenge. Reagan doctrine has collapsed. The contras are in disarray, the Sandinistas never stronger. Even those who have supported the President wonder about the wisdom and morality of a policy of fighting to the last contra. Central America will be a major reality test for the new White House team.
To meet these challenges and prove his effectiveness, Reagan will have to operate within the broad political consensus that exists in America now that the Democrats have regained control of the Senate. That leaves no room for pet right-wing projects like rushing deployment of a technically unproved "Star Wars" system or "reinterpreting" the anti-ballistic-missile treaty--let alone the U.S. Constitution, as Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III frequently suggests.
The President has now brought on board the ideal people to help. With Howard H. Baker Jr. as chief of staff, Frank C. Carlucci as national-security adviser and William H. Webster as CIA head, he has made the best set of appointments of his presidency. His speech demonstrates that he bends gracefully under pressure. Pundits and the public should not ask that he become more personally and directly involved. We do not need another Reykjavik.
Let Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Carlucci bring home a safe-and-sound arms agreement. Let Baker work out the budget, the trade bill and catastrophic health insurance with the Democratic Congress. And let Reagan be Reagan.