A bit of the old Gipper was back on stage Thursday night as he fielded questions from the White House media for the first time in four months. Not flashy, perhaps. But it clearly was a President who was confident in talking about what he knew of the Iran- contra controversy and unwilling to apologize for the detached management style for which he has been so broadly criticized since last November.
Ronald Reagan was tough on the budget and taxes, as he has been so consistently all these years. He renewed his pledge of support to the contra revolutionaries in Nicaragua. And he refused to back away from Administration efforts to apply a broad interpretation to the anti-ballistic-missile treaty if required to allow the Strategic Defense Initiative to go forward.
As for the Iran-contra affair, which dominated the press conference, the President basically stuck to the recitation of events that he has given before. "I did not see that as trading anything with the kidnapers," he declared. Yes, it was unfortunate that the arms overture to Iran slipped inadvertently into a trade for hostages and it will not happen again, the President said. But he made it clear that if he found some other acceptable avenue of winning freedom for American hostages he would try it. This, too, is part of the basic character of Ronald Wilson Reagan.
Those who expected a more repentant Reagan, a new President who had changed his spots to appease critics, would be disappointed. But their expectations would have been unrealistic in the first place.
Those who are frustrated about the missing dots between the first dealings with Iranian "moderates" and the trail of cash to the contras will remain frustrated. It is clear that the President is frustrated, too. He certainly seemed sincere when he said that he would have put a quick stop to any suggestion that profits from the arms sale be used to assist the contras.
Still unclear is whether former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and his aide, Oliver L. North, usurped power on their own to conduct bizarre and possibly extra-legal adventures in connection with the Iranian arms deal, or whether there was some more explicit direction from the White House staff or the President. All of this may come out in the investigations by Congress and the independent counsel, or it may not.
As for the White House management, rhetorically the President had no apologies. But that is not his style, either. What is important now is to judge the Administration by events: its ability to negotiate a nuclear-arms treaty with the Soviets and to deal with Congress on the budget and other issues. The early signs of change under the direction of Howard H. Baker Jr., the new chief of staff, generally are encouraging.
The President demonstrated Thursday night that he can still stand on his own two feet in the East Room and go one-on-many with the White House press corps with self-confidence. Those who have followed the President over the years know that the more often he deals with the press, the better he does. His new team of advisers should now plan for far more frequent sessions with the media without misgivings.