COLUMBIA, Mo. — President Reagan traveled to the heartland today on what was to be a triumphant journey away from the Iran- contra scandal but with a single innocent question, an 11-year-old girl reminded him of the biggest crisis in his presidency.
On a four-hour stop to this Missouri college town, Reagan talked to students and teachers about improving education.
But having avoided the Iran arms affair throughout the day, Reagan stumbled into a discussion of the scandal during a visit to Elaine Hassemer's sixth-grade civics class at Fairview Elementary School.
Reagan had sat among the pupils through a class discussion of the differences among the three branches of government.
As he was leaving, the President paused to take just one question, from 11-year-old Heather Watson, who had sat next to him.
She first commiserated, saying the publicity the President must endure "would drive me out of my mind" and then asked "what it was that made it all worthwhile."
Apparently prepared to answer questions about the scandal, Reagan immediately replied, "This is why I asked for a commission to be appointed to bring out all the facts."
He then offered a simplified explanation of the Iran initiative with historical references to the roots of the revolution that deposed the shah--whom Reagan said he knew--and the influence Iran wields over Muslim extremists holding American hostages in Lebanon.
Bid for 'Better Relationship'
Reagan again said the overtures began as a bid for "a better relationship with Iran" and weapons were introduced into the equation by the Iranians as a demonstration of good faith.
"This is what we started," he said, "and I'm afraid it wasn't carried out the way we thought it would be. It sort of settled down to just trading arms for hostages, and that's a little like paying ransom to a kidnaper.
"I have to say that I still think that the idea was right--to try to establish friendly relations, to try to bring about peace between the two countries that are at war and try to get our people freed," he said.
"I won't make that mistake again."
1st Speaking Trip Since Nov. 3
It was not clear that the girl's question was about Iran.
The visit was Reagan's first speaking stop outside Washington since last Nov. 3, the day before the midterm election and the day after a Lebanese magazine first disclosed the Iran arms scandal.
Children were freed from school to welcome Reagan to Columbia and when he saw the hundreds of students at the city's airport, he joshed, "Anybody playing hooky?"
A colorful parade greeted him in town, although some protesters, apparently from the University of Missouri, chanted "resignation" and held signs saying, "The Emperor Has No Brain."