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Leafing Through the Presidency : The Stream of Books by Washington Insiders Offers a Critical View of the Reagan Style

February 22, 1988|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — During last year's Iran-Contra hearings, news publications erupted with stories about Ronald Reagan's "hands-off management style." However, in his book, "Behind the Scenes," former White House aide Michael K. Deaver provides intimate glimpses of his boss that suggest Reagan was destined to be a laid-back President from the first day of the new Administration.

Just before 9 on the morning Reagan was to be sworn in as President, Deaver went to Blair House to find that Reagan was still in bed. Deaver reminded Reagan that he was to be inaugurated in two hours.

"Does that mean I have to get up?" Reagan replied.

More bedtime stories were to follow. When American fighter jets shot down two Libyan planes over the Gulf of Sidra in 1981, White House aide Edwin Meese decided not to wake up the President at 11 p.m., Deaver writes.

Shultz Waited

In his book, "Man of the House," former House Speaker Tip O'Neill reveals that in the summer of 1983 he received a telephone call at 7 a.m. at his Cape Cod vacation spot informing him that the Soviets had shot down a Korean airliner. He also found out that Secretary of State George Shultz was waiting until Reagan woke up to inform him of the development.

Beyond aides' reluctance to rouse Reagan at key moments lies an even more curious tale of what the President has done, or not done, while he was awake, running the country with a no-details management style that is documented bit by bit in a series of books that have been written by several people close to the Oval Office. Books by O'Neill and former Reagan aides Deaver, Alexander Haig, David Stockman and Terrel H. Bell all contain passages that suggest a portrait of a President working short hours, whose policies are shaped by feuding aides and an influential wife.

Some of these books, like Haig's "Caveat" and Stockman's "Triumph of Politics," were at least partially dismissed as expressions of sour grapes by aides whose own ambitions were frustrated. Reagan's popularity was so durable that critical authors raised relatively few eyebrows. But a second look at all the books taken together may result in a different conclusion.

"It's possible in the last year as the Reagan Administration begins to unravel, people might take another look at these books for a clue as to what really went wrong," said political analyst William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute.

The stream of books began in 1984 when former Secretary of State Alexander Haig became the first senior Cabinet member to launch a published attack on a sitting Administration since Secretary of State James Byrnes took aim at Harry Truman's foreign policy in his 1947 book, "Speaking Frankly." Haig, also speaking frankly, wrote in "Caveat" that Reagan's foreign policy was a free-for-all fight in which Reagan's inexperienced "chums" from California usually won out.

While some saw Haig as an unabashed power-grabber, Haig wrote in his defense that he merely was trying to decipher (or perhaps create) a chain of command that could handle foreign policy. Haig wrote that he found Reagan's national security process "incoherent." To him the White House seemed "as mysterious as a ghost ship. . . . Which of the crew had the helm?"

This mystery surfaced early, in a January meeting of Cabinet designates. "I had sensed in Meese a tendency to assume an unusual measure of authority," Haig wrote. "In a sort of primer on Cabinet relations with the White House, he explained the President's ideas, the President's procedures, the President's priorities. Reagan himself spoke very little. When he did intervene, it was usually to recall an incident from his days as governor of California that was in some way relevant to the subject."

With "The Triumph of Politics" published two years later in 1986, former Budget Director Stockman made front-page news with a detailed account of the early budget-cutting battle, which portrayed Reagan as having little or no grasp of his own economic policies.

Stockman contended in his book that Reagan never understood what kinds of devastatingly deep cuts would be required in all government programs to realize his campaign promise of balancing the budget. Stockman found Reagan to be a softhearted soul who knew only that he wanted to balance the budget while cutting taxes, raising defense spending and maintaining necessary assistance for truly needy elderly, disabled and poor Americans. Reagan could not be swayed from any of these convictions, even after it became apparent the combination was impossible.

"What do you do," Stockman writes, "when your President ignores all the palpable, relevant facts and wanders in circles? I could not bear to watch this good and decent man go on in this embarrassing way."

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