"Mr. Sullivan?" said the voice on the other end of the wire.

"Yes," I said.

"This is the White House calling. President Reagan is finishing up another call. He'll be with you in a minute."

President Reagan? The President Reagan? I checked my calendar, and it was not April Fool's Day. Then I remembered. Of course. I'd written a piece for the Sunday paper a couple of weeks back, protesting the Reagan administration's proposed cutting-in-half of the National Endowment for the Arts budget. It had reached the president's desk, and he was going to answer the argument one-on-one. Gutsy.

Wait a second. The Leader of the Free World has time to be calling up a theater critic about a Sunday piece? Aren't we getting a little self-important here?

Well, he used to be an actor.

"I have the president for you."

Gulp.

"This is Ronald Reagan."

It was.

"I know this is highly unusual, but I understand Buddy Ebsen has a new musical playing out there called 'Turn to the Right,' that you wrote a nice review of in the paper."

Huh? Review?

"I just wonder if there isn't some way you could let people know that I sure hope it's still playing next time I get home so that I can see it."

I am dreaming this. I am not dreaming this. The president of the United States stops his day to hype a musical comedy by an old pal. (Maybe it's the title that grabs him -- "Turn to the Right.") Meanwhile, he's having his budget director cut federal support for theater and music in half because the arts are "low priority."

What do I say to this man? Gee, Mr. President, I'll sure pass on the good word about Buddy's show?

"I'm ashamed of you," I say. (Listen. He called me .)

"Well, I'm very sorry you feel that way," he says.

But -- give him this -- he doesn't hang up. He stays on the line. He hears me out.

I tell him that a $1 million musical like "Turn to the Right" can make its way in the marketplace by itself. I tell him that it's the serious, smaller, nonprofit theaters that need encouraging, that need the kind of boost a $10,000 grant from NEA can bring -- particularly in priming matching private support.

He says that his people have discovered boondoogles in some NEA programs. Fifteen hundred dollars for a theater performance in a laundromat. Silly stuff like that.

I say that as a reporter I've found NEA a tightly budgeted program, with good financial accountability, and, yes, the occasional flaky project. It happens when you're encouraging what's untried in the arts as well as what's proven.

I suggest that there are probably some boondoogles in the Defense Department, too.

Yes, he says -- $4 billion worth. "And we've caught them!"

He talks about the wonderful way he got the arts people and the business people together when he was governor of California.

I give him some examples of NEA funding doing just that. For example, the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and its role in the revival of the Cleveland waterfront.

He says it's a question of balancing needs.

I say it's a question of the arts being central in the lives of a great people, part of the nation's spiritual health, surely something that a leader who has been an artist should see. I mention the Comedie Francaise and the other great European state theaters and our own Federal Theater in the 1930s.

He says that Americans support the arts more generously than anybody, but by private means. Take the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

I suggest he ask the Philharmonic what the NEA cuts are going to do to its outreach budget.

He says we've always had "Little Theater" (the 1930s term) and always will have.

I say it wouldn't hurt to put a little public money behind it as a token of support for the values we're spending billions of dolllars to defend.

At least I hope I said that. Suddenly finding yourself in a phone debate with the president of the United States leads to a certain amount of stammering and a large case, later, of I-shoulda-said. Why didn't I ask him to look into the Defense Department's budget for military bands? Why didn't I. . . .

But he had to go. (Other calls to make.) He said he'd think about what I said. I promised to think about "Turn to the Right." Maybe we could say that a highly placed administration source revealed it's a good family show.

A small chuckle.

"Nice to talk with you."

"Nice to talk with you ."

Later we called the White House back just to make sure it wasn't Rich Little. It wasn't.