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Reagan to Hold Crucial Press Talk Thursday

March 18, 1987|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Reagan has scheduled his first news conference in four months on Thursday in his campaign to demonstrate that he has rebounded from the battering of the Iran- contra scandal and that he is fully in control of his Administration.

The news conference--announced Tuesday by the White House--is Reagan's first since the full dimension of the Iran scandal came to light. It will be his most critical.

Can Dispel Criticism

With a strong display of presidential bearing and a command of policy detail, Reagan can help dispel an investigative panel's devastating criticisms that he is a detached leader who is sometimes oblivious to the workings of his own initiatives. He can forge the impression of a President who has admitted mistakes and is now ready to take on new challenges.

At the same time, in facing sharp, unscripted questioning about the Iran arms scandal before a national television audience, he runs the risk of inflaming suspicions about his mastery of the job, should he stumble or appear unsure of himself.

It is a setting in which he has made mistakes in the past. At his last such meeting with reporters, a misstatement prompted aides to quickly correct his denial that a third nation, meaning Israel, was involved in the Iran arms deal.

In the end, political experts say, Reagan's performance in Thursday's press conference, which will be broadcast live by the television networks at 5 p.m. PST, will help determine whether he will be able to win the public confidence he will need to help press his programs through Congress in the last 22 months of his presidency and fend off the inertia of a lame-duck Administration.

Tuesday, Marlin Fitzwater, the President's spokesman, said he is confident that Reagan will meet the test while taking advantage of the opportunity "to talk directly to the American people, unfiltered and unedited."

However, one Administration official remarked: "I expect this to be sort of painful for him." And a former presidential assistant, speaking of his White House colleagues and worries about the President's ability to perform convincingly, said: "Sure, they're concerned."

President Ready

Reagan, smiling when he encountered reporters Tuesday at the end of a Rose Garden ceremony, called out, when asked whether he was ready for the news conference: "I'm looking forward to it."

The news conference is seen in the White House as a necessary step in the President's efforts to cope with the Iran disclosures, a Congress in which Democrats hold majorities in both houses for the first time in six years and the dwindling time left in his second term.

In recent days, he has been using his public appearances as steppingstones:

--Two weeks ago, he delivered a nationally broadcast speech in which he accepted the stinging criticisms and recommendations of the commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) that he appointed to study the work of the National Security Council staff at the White House in the wake of the Iran-contra disclosures.

--In his weekly radio address last Saturday, he acknowledged that he had been wrong in trying to trade arms for the freedom of Americans held hostage in Lebanon.

--In other statements and brief appearances, he has focused attention on the renewed opportunities his Administration has for a breakthrough arms control agreement with the Soviets.

Questions From Staff

Staff preparation of Reagan for the White House news conference has been under way for days, as representatives of government departments and agencies have been providing briefing material for the President on leading topics. Before the news conference, he will be peppered with likely questions by his staff.

Fitzwater said that, with the Iran arms affair dominating recent events, he expects 90% of the questions to deal with that subject. And, with the pace of U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations picking up, that topic also seems likely to arise.

"I think he's prepared. I don't see any problems," Fitzwater said. "Our message is, we want to show that the President has dealt with this issue and we're hard at work on the last two years of the agenda."

Staff Turnovers

However, the turnover in the White House staff in recent weeks has made the news conference preparation more difficult. Reagan has named a new national security adviser, Frank C. Carlucci, a new chief of staff, Howard H. Baker Jr., and a new spokesman, Fitzwater, since the last news conference. That means that "basically, you don't have anyone here who has been through a news conference" at the White House, Fitzwater said.

Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia professor of government, said that Reagan has a "history of performing well in the clutch."

Thursday will indeed be the clutch. Reagan must be "not the great communicator--he's got to be the great performer," a former White House official said.

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