Am I to blame, I ask myself?
I refer to the consternation and confusion about ending the SALT II treaty that arose after the president's June 11 White House press conference.
I was there, and did not contribute directly in any way to the muddle.
But I wasn't sitting where I was supposed to sit, and that could have triggered the whole thing.
I mention it because President Reagan told his staff afterwards that the reason he inadvertently had revived SALT II was because he was looking for different reporters to recognize. He had some cue cards which were going to help him to find new faces, but he got lost in the cards somehow and muffed his answers.
Now I'm not saying that the president was going to call on me. I am pretty sure he wasn't. He hasn't called on me since Jan. 19, 1982.
That day, because of the absence of a Washington Post colleague who was detained in traffic, I was right up there in the front row. Halfway through the proceedings, which I could see and hear perfectly well for a change, I realized that rank has its obligations. I had to ask a question.
I asked the president, who had been making stirring speeches about the rich helping the poor while the government cut back on donations, whether, in the light of those exhortations, he would increase his own charitable contributions. I still think it was a legitimate question, but the president choked on it a bit and all but said he wished that he hadn't recognized me.
He hasn't ever since, and I'm not saying he would have this last time if I had been in my rightful seat. My assigned place was in the fourth and last row on the right of the podium. I'm used to the back row. I am accustomed to being placed in the heart of the leper colony, those correspondents the president ignores unless he wants to make a point that there are some odd people in the Washington press corps.
But next to Radio Marti? You remember Radio Marti; it's the propaganda agency dreamed up by the Reagan Administration to tell Cubans about conditions in Cuba. I always thought it was dumb, and wrote to that effect many times when Marti was going through Congress. I don't know how more pro-American the Cubans can be: Thousands of them flung themselves into the sea, prepared, it seemed, to swim to us if they could. Cubans don't know about food shortages? They don't know that their sons are fighting in Angola? They don't know about repression? Please.
Anyway, I rebelled. I waited until the press office hostess, who was moving around with the seating chart in her hand, went to another corner of the East Room, and I made my move. I didn't head for the front row -- I know my place. But I did sink into a second-row spot. I had no idea what I would do if challenged. I wasn't sure there would be time before the president's arrival to thrash out the merits of Radio Marti, or even the matter of whether someone who writes for a newspaper might be entitled to be seated among with the press and not the propagandists.
I got away with it.
But at what cost to clarity in public policy. I'm not sure it was worth it.
The president got so rattled that he answered a question about abortion with an answer about Baby Doe, muffed another about a new Soviet arms proposal, and just came apart on a SALT II question.
He doesn't like killing treaties, that's obvious. When he decided that SALT II had to go, he had his spokesman, Larry Speakes, break the news.
But at the press conference, people kept harping on it. Someone asked him why he had made the decision now.
"I didn't make it now," he replied, sending shock waves around the world.
My theory is that the president was looking for the Radio Marti correspondent, from whom he could expect a friendly question about the contras, or maybe the perfidy of Fidel Castro. Maybe I was supposed to be a kind of road sign on his way to the friendly quizzer. I wasn't there. Neither, as a matter of fact, was anyone from Marti. Who could blame the man for getting rattled and reaching for the SALT?
The next morning, Speakes told reporters that SALT II was no longer in existence. Later, correspondents at a "photo opportunity" asked the president to say himself if the treaty was dead.
"You can trust Larry Speakes," Reagan replied. Still later the same day, the White House press office called reporters and told them that "restraint" was not dead.
I have learned some important lessons from all this. One is, never change your seat at a White House press conference, if there ever is another. The second is that it is when Speakes speaks on arms control, listen up. And the third is that you must not use the word "dead" when talking about SALT II.
"No longer in existence" is the phrase of preference. Look for a ripple in Westerns: "Move, and you're no longer in existence."
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.