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Reagan Seeks to Calm His Right-Wing Critics : Conservatives Say He's Abandoned His Ideals Over Arms Control, Central America Initiative

September 06, 1987|JACK NELSON | Times Washington Bureau Chief

Discussing the criticism, a Baker aide, who refused to be identified, said: "I wonder how much of that is frustration that they don't have a candidate in the 1988 presidential race. In 1980 and 1984 they were players, but now they've got no candidate."

What Motivates Conservatives

Although conservative activists supported Reagan in both those years, so far they have coalesced around no Republican candidate, although Vice President George Bush, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) have all sought their support.

Shortly after taking office, Baker did arrange a meeting between Reagan and a group of conservative activists, including Weyrich and Rusher, to discuss the agenda for the remainder of Reagan's presidency.

"It was patently an effort by Howard to buy some time from the right," said one of the conservative leaders, who refused to be identified. "We were supposed to meet again every six weeks, but they've never called another meeting. I don't think Howard or the people around him--Ken Duberstein or (communications director) Tom Griscom--have any real understanding of who conservatives are and what they are about or what motivates them."

Although that group never met again, three weeks ago Baker, attempting to pacify critics who accused the Administration of selling out the contras, arranged a meeting of Reagan and some of his top advisers with about 15 conservative backers of the Nicaragua rebels, including Weyrich.

Greeted With Silence

At that session, according to several sources, Reagan was greeted with stony silence when he tried to reassure the conservatives in a brief statement that he still supports the contras despite embracing a peace plan that would end aid to the rebels if the Sandinista government accepts a cease-fire by Sept. 30, refuses any more Soviet military aid and agrees to democratic and humanitarian reforms.

The meeting originally had been requested by the conservatives to discuss strategy for seeking additional aid for the rebels in the aftermath of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's testimony at congressional hearings on the Iran-contra affair. North's testimony in support of the contras had been so well received by the public that conservatives believed the time was ripe for pressing Congress for more aid.

However, because the Administration had already endorsed the peace plan by the time the meeting was held, conservatives accused Baker and other top officials at the session of selling out the contras.

Thus, when the President arrived, the conservatives were already seething. Reagan, stunned by his icy greeting, used index cards in making a statement of less than five minutes.

"When he stopped there was dead silence, and he stood there awkwardly; as an old radio man, he would have called it dead air," said a conservative who attended the meeting. "He must have stood there for 15 seconds and then said: 'I guess I interrupted some work.' Then he turned and walked away and, as he went out the door, he put his hands out with his palms up as if to say: 'What's going on here?' "

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