FROM THE WEST WING of the Reagan White House comes a new, limited-edition classic, bound in shiny white vinyl and titled "Fairness Issues."
"An Executive Briefing Book," proclaims its title page. "For internal use only," explains its White House editor in chief.
It is a belated effort to bring repair to a battered presidential image. But like another effort to rehabilitate another president's battered image a decade ago -- the Nixon White House's Operation Candor, designed to counter the cockeyed notion that Richard Nixon was not telling the truth -- the Reagan White House's fairness operation is most revealing not for its contents, but for its revelations about thinking inside the White House.
Things have gotten so bad that President Reagan's men have had to put out a 75-page Fairness Book just to say it isn't so. Their problem is that the public has already decided otherwise.
The Reagan Fairness Book is made up of what politicians like to call "talking points," a blend of statistics and rationales to help the Reagan Cabinet and subcabinet elite carry the gospel to the masses this fall. The most recent application of the book's nostrums has been in President Reagan's mid-September speeches to black Republicans and black college presidents. Those were the speeches in which Reagan contended that Great Society programs made life much worse, not better, for blacks and the poor.
The Fairness Book opens with what seems a fair description of opposition criticism, and then adds a few private figures of Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin. It notes critics' accusations that the administration's Economic Recovery Program is designed to achieve recovery on the "backs of the poor . . ;" that Reagan lacks compassion for the poor; that his program will make the poor get poorer and the rich will get richer.
The book also contains polling data from Wirthlin which -- like many public polls -- show large majorities believing that the Reagan program does favor rich over poor.
Then it outlines the Reagan fairness pitch, the one that hasn't been selling too well:
What to do (three-point approach):
Demonstrate that the past approach to poverty has not worked:
* Social spending has mushroomed.
* The economy has deteriorated.
* The poor have suffered the most.
* Show that the president has a plan:
* The plan is fair.
* The plan will work.
* The poor have the most to gain.
Emphasize that we need to stay on course:
* There are growing positive signs.
* To the extent the economy remains sluggish it is because we have a long way to go.
* We can turn the economy around, but only if we take the necessary steps.
"We are the keepers of the Holy Grail," says Edwin J. Gray, who supervised the preparation of the Fairness Book as his last undertaking as a deputy assistant to the president before returning to private enterprise in California. "We just wanted to make sure that the people who deal with the outside have before them the president's case on fairness."
"I've got to say it -- it's an impressive job they've done," remarks one congressional Democratic analyst who has reviewed the Fairness Book. But, not surprisingly, his own team of experts does not consider the Reagan fairness pitch entirely fair, especially because of its omission of certain facts and figures.
They note, for example:
The Medicare and Medicaid chapter states: "Barring occasional human error or administrative oversight, all of the needy would continue to be served by available health care services." It does not say that because of federal fund cutbacks, 20 states have toughened eligibility standards and 20 states have eliminated some services. Illinois, for instance, has stopped providing artificial arms and legs and other prosthetic devices, plus nonemergency dental care and physical and occupational therapy; California suspended for one year payments for hearing aids, therapy, podiatry and optometry.
The Food Stamps chapter notes, "In 1965 the food stamp program cost $35 million. By 1977 the cost had risen more than 100 times to $5.4 billion." It does not mention that food stamps only became a national program in 1974; before that it was a pilot program.
The chapter on Federal Child Nutrition Programs: "In 1950, 7.8 million school children participated in the program. That number rose to 22 million in 1970 and 27 million in 1980." It does not say that participation in the program has been declining since then.
The Fairness Book has not been the White House's only response to the fairness issue. It has also tried a somewhat slicker approach.
Consider the most shameless political deception of the season: the Republican television ad in which a white-haired mailman delivers July's Social Security check containing the automatic cost-of-living increase in benefits. President Reagan "kept his promise to the American people," the ad proclaims.
But of course this increase was no Reagan promise at all. It was mandated by law, and in fact, Reagan had proposed cutting it.
Still, Wirthlin's private polls showed a major turnaround because of the ad. While most senior citizens were saying in June that they thought Reagan had decreased their Social Security payments, a month later an overwhelming majority of those with an opinion on the subject thought he had increased their payments.
"It showed," says one senior Reagan adviser, "that the fairness issue can be dealt with."
This may be the essential paradox of this political season: The only way Ronald Reagan can convince people that he really is fair is by airing an ad that isn't.