HARTFORD, Wis. — White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, responding to news reports that President Reagan led an effort to conceal details of Iranian arms-and-hostages dealings last November, angrily declared Monday: "I frankly think that some members of the press are so hungry to try to destroy the President that they've lost all perspective."
Fitzwater said that the President had wanted to avoid providing details out of concern for the lives of American hostages still being held in Lebanon and for Iranians who supported the arms initiative.
The articles were based on notes taken at a White House meeting Nov. 10, 1986, by Alton G. Keel Jr., then deputy national security adviser.
According to the notes, which were released last week by the congressional committees investigating the Iran- contra affair, the President told assistants that "we don't talk TOWs, don't talk specifics." TOWs are the U.S. anti-tank missiles that were delivered to Iran in the effort to free Americans held hostage by pro-Iranian terrorists in Lebanon.
Fitzwater made his pointed comments to reporters aboard Air Force One on a trip to Wisconsin.
Reagan made speeches in three small cities north of Milwaukee as part of his summer-long drive to draw public support on such economic issues as trade and the budget at a time when much of the nation's attention remains locked on the Iran-contra hearings.
The economic drive is part of a broader White House campaign to portray Reagan's leadership as central and vigorous during the waning months of his presidency. But Fitzwater's remarks reflected the difficulty the White House has encountered in trying to keep the spotlight away from the Iran story at home, even while on the road.
Reagan himself invoked words from the Iran-contra hearings in his determined effort to maintain the image of an active leader in the last 18 months of his Administration.
"To borrow a phrase that you might have heard recently from one of the lawyers--defense lawyers at the legislative hearings there going on in Washington--who had to protest that he wasn't a potted plant . . . I reject a potted-plant presidency," Reagan told workers at the Broan appliance company in Hartford. "I'm here to do a job."
The originator of the "potted-plant" phrase was Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., the lawyer for Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who had repeated confrontations with members of the congressional committees while representing the former White House aide during North's appearance before the panels.
Fitzwater, after conferring with Reagan aboard Air Force One, maintained that "the President's comments on Nov. 10 were appropriate, honest and consistent with all of his public statements."
"This is an old story dealt with in its entirety in the Tower report," Fitzwater said, referring to the report issued in February by a special board appointed by Reagan. The board, led by former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), conducted one of the initial investigations of the effort to sell arms to Iran and divert the profits to the rebels in Nicaragua.
He said that the Tower board, which also had been given the notes, reported the same points as those made in the articles and that "immediately following the public disclosure, the President wanted to avoid providing too much specificity or detail out of concern for the hostages still held in Lebanon and those Iranians who had supported the initiative."
During the Wisconsin trip--Reagan's fourth in the last five weeks--the President sought to show that he still has a firm hand in running the government, repeating his threat to veto unacceptable economic legislation during stops at an appliance factory, a Rotary Club luncheon and a community park on the shore of Lake Michigan.
In his public appearances, at the lunch in West Bend and at a public park in Port Washington, Reagan promised to reject the trade bill if it is not modified to his liking and to turn down any effort to cut the federal budget deficit by raising taxes.
"Under the guise of protectionism, those bills threaten the jobs and livelihood of American workers, and that's why I'm prepared to veto this legislation if it reaches my desk in its present form," Reagan said. He was referring to a House bill, passed last April 30, and a Senate measure approved last Tuesday.
In the House bill, Reagan objects to provisions for mandatory retaliation against countries that maintain high trade deficits with the United States. In the Senate measure, he opposes a section requiring manufacturers to give workers 60 days' notice of plant closings or layoffs.
The White House hopes that the objectionable sections will be removed before the legislation reaches the President.
The congressional budget resolution calls for $19 billion in new taxes, but no specific tax increase legislation has been passed. But for months Reagan has been opposing such a step, coming up with new ways at nearly every speech to show his displeasure.
"The special interests want to raise the American people's taxes to pay for her high times. . . . Any tax increase that reaches my desk will be headed on a different kind of vacation--a one-way cruise to nowhere on the SS Veto," he said Monday.