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White House Staff Goes About Its Business as Controversies Grow : It's an Anxious Time for All the President's Men

May 14, 1987|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — At meetings of the White House senior staff in the last few days, wisecracks about Gary Hart's predicament have been coming so fast and furious that serious topics have sometimes had to wait their turn on the agenda.

In the Oval Office, the President has been busy with an assortment of ceremonial and executive duties, greeting foreign diplomats newly arrived in the United States and meeting with GOP congressional leaders about the debt ceiling.

Yet, for all the surface appearance of calm and attention to the business of government in good humor, this is an anxious time for the President and his men in Washington.

Resolve Being Tested

The steady accumulation of damaging testimony from the congressional hearings on the Iran- contra affair and the growing controversy over Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III's ties with a scandal-ridden defense contractor, are testing their resolve not to allow the chaos of the Iran winter to overwhelm the White House again.

"They're trying real hard not to be preoccupied by it," said a Republican lawyer with close ties to the White House staff. "There's very little they can do, except to muddle through each situation."

It's a challenge that grows tougher by the day and is cause for considerable concern.

Each day, a member of the staff of White House counsel A. B. Culvahouse has been assigned to monitor the hearings and produce a 1 1/2-page summary for the President.

And each day, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater has been peppered with questions from reporters about the latest revelations.

Also, on many days, a development in the Meese case or another sensitive topic has caused embarrassment for the Administration.

Avoiding Tit for Tat

For the Iran hearings, Fitzwater has been doing his best, with varying degrees of success, to adhere to the White House's carefully plotted strategy to say as little as possible to avoid becoming ensnared in a daily tit for tat that would appear to put the President on the defensive.

"These hearings will be around for a while and that's why you make sure the activities are not dictated every day by the hearings," said a White House official involved in long-range planning of presidential activities.

But even so, the impact of some of the testimony already has cracked that defense. And White House officials are clearly apprehensive that all the painstaking work done in recent months to rebuild staff morale and refocus attention on Reagan's upcoming program priorities could be wiped away by yet another onslaught of controversy.

"They're concerned," said a Republican political adviser with ties to the White House.

Another Reagan ally, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), said after a White House meeting--at which, he noted pointedly, the subject of the Iran hearings was not discussed--that he was "just as apprehensive as a lot of people are about what the outcome might be."

So far, White House officials maintain that the damage from the hearings has not been greater than expected.

Reagan Responds

However, it has been enough to draw replies from Reagan, despite the tight-lip strategy.

--On Tuesday, while former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane was appearing at the congressional hearings, Reagan responded during a photo session to reporters' questions about whether he had solicited aid for the Nicaraguan rebels from other countries.

"I have said that I am not going to answer any questions on those things until this is over," the President said. But then he added: "If I were going to answer any questions, I'd say no." McFarlane had testified that the President solicited a donation from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia at a time when U.S. assistance for the contras was banned by Congress.

--On Wednesday, Reagan told reporters that his personal diary indicated he had discussed the subject with Fahd, but that he had not raised it himself.

--Last week, Reagan insisted to reporters at a Rose Garden ceremony that he had no knowledge that proceeds from the Iran arms sale were being diverted to the contras. "I did not know about it and I did not know--and I'm still waiting to know--where did that money go," he said. At the hearings, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord had testified that Oliver L. North, the former National Security Council aide, reported having told Reagan about the diversion.

A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that from time to time, Reagan will respond to such questions.

'You'll Find Repetition'

"There are times, depending on what is out there, that you do need to say something," he said. "Any time the notion is raised that he knew about the diversion, you'll find a repetition of that statement."

A longtime ally said that he does not think Reagan is lying about not knowing the details of the operation. But of the hearing testimony so far, he said, "frankly, it makes him look like hell."

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