COLUMBIA, Mo. — President Reagan flew halfway across the nation Thursday to try to put the Iran- contra affair behind him--only to dive right into the subject in answer to a question that apparently was never asked.
In the course of his statement, he acknowledged that trading arms for hostages was "a little like paying ransom to a kidnaper."
After Reagan had attended an abbreviated sixth-grade civics lesson, he invited questions from the students. Eleven-year-old Heather Watson said to the President, who was accompanied by a retinue of reporters, photographers, and television camera crews:
"With all this publicity and the press and stuff, it would just drive me out of my mind. I was just wondering what it was that made it worthwhile to you."
Delves Into Explanation
And with that question, apparently about the travails of the presidency, Reagan offered an unsought explanation of the effort to sell weapons to Iran--although the child made no mention of Iran, the anti-Sandinista rebels to whom profits from the sales were apparently diverted, or the American hostages in Lebanon whose freedom Reagan sought in exchange for the weapons.
"What made it worthwhile? Well, this was one of the things why I asked for a commission to be appointed--to bring out all the facts. You know, there was a revolution in a country called Iran, and the Ayatollah (Ruhollah) Khomeini took over and became the dictator of that country . . . ," Reagan said, beginning a summary of Iranian history over the past 10 years.
His account ended up with the effort to free the hostages in Lebanon, believed to be held by groups loyal to Khomeini.
"I'm afraid it wasn't carried out the way we had thought it would be," Reagan said. "It sort of settled down to just trading arms for hostages, and that's a little like paying ransom to a kidnaper. If you do it, then the kidnaper's just encouraged to go kidnap someone else."
A Different Answer
In his most recent description of the Iran effort, at his news conference on March 19, Reagan balked at equating the attempt to win the hostages' freedom with paying ransom. He said at the time:
"I still believe that if someone in my family was kidnaped and I went out and hired someone that I thought could get that person safely home, that would not be engaging in ransom of the victim."
Asked why Reagan spoke about Iran when the trip was intended to focus on domestic issues, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said: "He was asked about it. That's the way I heard it. The answer was perfect. Another case of a perfect answer and a flawed question."
Reagan arrived in Columbia to play one scene in what aides have described as a long-developed and multi-act plan to demonstrate that his Administration will remain active despite the Iran-contra affair. His stages were two schools here in the nation's heartland, where he saluted trends in American teaching that stress basic learning skills over educational fads.
For Reagan--whose last major speechmaking excursion from the White House ended Nov. 4, the day the Iran affair came to light and two months before he underwent prostate surgery in January--the carefully planned journey to Columbia represented a debut of sorts, but also a return to a popular theme in his presidency. It was also a day in which no part was assigned to the politically embarrassing weapons sale.
With a revamped staff supporting him in the upper levels of the White House, Reagan took his new team on the road, while stressing subjects that have been at the heart of his focus on American education for four years.
"The secret to educational quality is not in the pocketbook, but in the heart," he said in a speech at Hickman High School. "It's in the simple dedication of teachers, administrators, parents and students to the same basic, fundamental values that have always been the wellspring of success both in education and life in our country."
But, while focusing on the role education can play in helping the nation meet the demands of global competition in the 21st Century, Reagan has been shaving the federal education budget, proposing $5.7 billion in cuts in the current fiscal year and and an additional $5.5 billion in cuts next year.
Reagan, speaking to an education conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Governors' Assn., said at the high school:
"You don't need schools filled with high technology to give children a good education. You need schools that set high standards and pay attention to the basics of reading, math, science, language and the meaning of our sacred national heritage."
Travels With Teacher
Among those accompanying Reagan from Washington was Joy Underdown, a third grade teacher at Fairview Elementary School, one of the schools Reagan visited. Underdown was a pre-kindergarten teacher of the President's son Ron at the John Thomas Dye school in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles more than 20 years ago. She had been attending a conference in Washington and returned to Columbia aboard Air Force One.
The practical political value of such trips as Thursday's was pointed up by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who said Wednesday in an interview with The Times' Washington bureau: "You know, he's still popular out there."
"This Iran situation is not a domestic situation," he said. "It's something of an embarrassment to us, but Ronald Reagan still walks around with the American flag and people like that."
Indeed, that was demonstrated Thursday as Reagan's motorcade sped from the Columbia airport to the schools. Thousands of people turned out to watch him drive past.