PALM SPRINGS — Back in October, five seasons away from Jan. 20, 1989, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan will move out of the White House, a representative of the First Family approached the federal government's General Services Administration with this question: What government funding, the Reagans' representative wanted to know, according to a congressional source, would be available to pay for the expense of their move home to California at the end of the President's term?
Even as negotiators are preparing for a new round of arms control talks, as officials are working on a new budget and others are talking about a springtime summit meeting in Moscow, President Reagan is facing the winding down of his Administration--illustrated by the grand and the small, by concerns about the nitty-gritty details of his departure and by such big-picture items as concern for his political legacy.
Aides Packing Up
All around the President, in the agencies of the government and down the corridors of the White House, people are packing up and departing--if not in the exodus likely to begin next autumn or even next summer, then in a trickle that is not expected to abate.
Mrs. Reagan--after a year of personal sadness and political turmoil marked by her mother's death, her own breast cancer surgery and the President's loss of political favor in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal--is looking forward to the end of the fishbowl life in the White House, a senior White House official acknowledged, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Nevertheless, this official and others working just beyond the Oval Office in the White House West Wing are preparing a busy 1988 for Reagan: a meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow, at which the President hopes to sign a strategic arms control agreement, in late May or early June; the annual summit conference of the major industrial democracies, which in 1988 will take place in Canada during the third week of June, and, possibly, a visit in late February or early March to Mexico. A trip to Western Europe and, possibly, one to the Far East also are being considered.
But--as he greets 1988 in Rancho Mirage, surrounded by longtime acquaintances and political backers and buoyed by a surge in popularity fueled by his December summit meeting with Gorbachev--Reagan, in the eighth year of his presidency, is entering what Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. calls "the teacher role" and will be trying on the mantle of a senior statesman.
His mood, senior aides say, is particularly upbeat after a rousing finish to 1987 that included the Washington summit talks with Gorbachev, a budget agreement with Congress and a friendly reception for his nomination of Judge Anthony M. Kennedy to the Supreme Court after two unsuccessful nominations.
"He feels the spirit and cooperation that manifested itself in the last six to seven weeks are something you can build on, as you make progress on START (the acronym for a new strategic arms reduction treaty), as you address elements in the economy as a follow-up on the budget agreement, and that he can work with a group of congressmen and senators, both in international relations as well as domestic policy," said a senior White House official who accompanied Reagan to Palm Springs.
In his sessions with the President, said the official, who asked not to be identified, "what I have heard him talking about is looking forward to this next year to put the cap on the Reagan presidency" rather than "post-presidency" activity.
To Come Out 'Flying'
"He wants to come out of the blocks flying," he said.
In referring to the Iran-Contra affair, which enveloped the Reagan presidency a year ago, the official stated:
"Last year at this time it was the doldrums, and he's come through the firestorm and ended up the year in very good shape to begin 1988 and finish the major agenda items."
But, against this backdrop of a seemingly full agenda despite the dwindling days in office--a period in which Reagan seeks to project the image of what a senior aide called a President "involved and fully engaged in all the issues"--the pressures of the presidential election are beginning to swirl around him and the departing senior and mid-level officials of his Administration.
On a cheerless and rainy afternoon in September, senior members of the White House staff joined President and Mrs. Reagan in the Roosevelt Room across a corridor from the Oval Office to bid farewell to a colleague who was leaving Washington to begin a job with the giant financial investment firm of Merrill Lynch & Co. in Princeton, N. J.
But the friendly, informal gathering marked not so much the end of one White House career as the beginning of the departures that occur at senior levels of an Administration whose months are numbered--the start, in effect, of a transition that will not end until the summer of 1989, six months into a new Administration, when a new President's team is in place.