WASHINGTON — At the height of the Iran-Contra hearings last summer, President Reagan begged off answering reporters' questions about the latest testimony, telling them that, once the congressional investigation was over, "you won't be able to shut me up."
But now that the congressional panels have issued their exhaustive report on the affair--a document highly critical of the President's conduct--Reagan and his aides are taking a much different approach.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters Thursday that the President has no plans to comment on the matter any time soon. Nor would Fitzwater address specific issues or aspects of controversy raised in Wednesday's report by the House and Senate committees that investigated the Iran arms sales and diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan rebels.
The blank response corresponded with a new Administration strategy that assumes, in the words of one senior White House official, that "the American people have pretty much put this behind them."
"Most people outside of Washington want to get on with business," he said. "Our thought is just to move ahead and not dwell on this."
The tactic reflects the hope of the White House staff that Reagan, by keeping mum, can avoid drawing new attention to his weakened presidency. Instead, they want him to capitalize on the potential public relations bonanza of next month's arms-control summit meeting in Washington with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The last time that Reagan, who has answered questions at four news conferences in the year since the Iran-Contra affair came to light, spoke at any length in public on the subject was in a speech to the nation he delivered from the Oval Office on Aug. 12. Even that address dealt only in part with the Iran scandal, and in little detail.
"Will the President ever speak in reaction to this report?" Fitzwater was asked Thursday.
"I don't think we'll ever discuss these kinds of details, no," he replied.
Fitzwater was noncommittal about whether Reagan would study the document. "He has it and probably will read some of it," the spokesman said.
Meese Dismisses Report
Similarly, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III dismissed the work of the House and Senate Iran-Contra committees as "a great job of Monday-morning quarterbacking.
"I don't think there is anything much new there," he told reporters before speaking to an American Bar Assn. panel.
The document, signed by all 15 Democrats and three of the 11 Republicans on the House and Senate committees, castigated Reagan for failing in his constitutional duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed."
"The ultimate responsibility for the events in the Iran-Contra affair must rest with the President," the report said. "If the President did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have."
Reagan's aides, the report asserted, aided the Contras in spite of a congressional ban and then covered up their activities. "The actions of those individuals do not comport with the notion of a country guided by the rule of law," it said. "But the President has yet to condemn their conduct."
The President repeatedly misinformed the public, the report said, about U.S. support for the Contras and about his policy of selling arms to Iran in exchange for Americans held hostage in Lebanon.
Fitzwater, asked about the alleged inconsistencies in the President's accounts, said: "The President told the truth on every occasion and on every subject, period."