Attempting to penetrate the wall of silence erected by Ronald Reagan around the hostage issue, this message was flashed to Reagan headquarters in Arlington early last week: attack President Carter's record on the hostages no matter what the risk.
That advice, from one of the party's respected elder politicians, so far has fallen on deaf ears. Instead of attacking Carter, the consensus of Reagan's divided counselors is to say nothing until the fine print of Carter's hostage deal with Iran is known. That makes Reagan himself a captive of the hostage issue.
Behind the divided counsel rests a most agonizing political problem for Reagan. The question is whether a silent Reagan can possibly avoid defeat on Nov. 4 if the hostages are returned, creating a wave of patriotic fervor that would dwarf other elements of the presidential campaign.
The current consensus in Reagan's headquarters is that Carter's brilliant but cynical exploitation of the hostage issue could backfire, converting few if any anti-Carter or undecided voters to Carter following hostage freedom. But the advice from the party's elder statesman, multiplied a hundredfold by lesser party operatives, derides that view as pie-in-the-sky.
"If the hostages come out," this party leader told us, "Reagan must have laid the base for serious discussion. He must ask te questions now about why Carter let the hostages get taken in the first place and whether his deal with Iran could get the United States into a Persian Gulf war."
Reagan briefly lifted his self-imposed silence on the hostage issue Oct. 21 when he blamed Carter for helping create "the entire situation that made their kidnap possible." But as soon as Carter accused him of politicizing the issue, Reagan reimposed silence on himself.
Yet, no less than Vice President Walter Mondale could not give an adequate response Friday morning when he was interviewed on NBC's "Today" show. Asked by Richard Valeriani why both presidential candidates did not have a "responsibility" to debate Carter's "accountability" for the seizure of the hostages, Mondale could only reply: "We're willing to discuss that whole issue. . . . But it is uniquely unsuited to politics."
Some of Reagan's advisers feel discussion is long overdue. They see it as a tragic disservice to the country, with political implications stretching at least four years into the future, if an election-eve Carter coup succeeds in bringing the hostages home and blots out the central economic, defense and foreign policy issues of the campaign.
Not the least of these concerns is whether Carter strikes a bargain with Iran that ends American neutrality and puts the United States on Iran's side in that Persian Gulf war. This might happen, according to high administration officials, if Carter agrees to send Iran the $400 million in military equipment sold to the shah before seizure of the hostages.
As one administration official told us: "The president simply cannot publicly offer help like that to the ayatollah. All he can do is hint at it, and make the final deal after the election." But in the Reagan camp, there is total ignorance about what if any concessions Carter may be planning as his election-eve quid pro quo to gain release of the hostages. By the time Reagan learns the facts, time will be running out.
Indeed, lack of knowledge is Reagan's greatest enemy as the hostage drama appears to unfold behind the velvet curtain of secret diplomacy. A Reagan operative in one state that has been regarded as solid for Reagan informed Bill Timmons, deputy director of the Reagan campaign, last Thursday that Reagan was slipping in his state. He believes one factor in that slippage is headline publicity on Carter's efforts to free the hostages.
Despite persuasive arguments being made by the minority of Reagan insiders for opening up the hostage question, the consensus remains wedded to caution. No thought was given to switching Reagan's Friday evening half-hour televised address from economics to Carter's flawed record on Iran and the hostages.
The committee that manages Reagan's campaign is fearful that even a factual, hard-hitting offensive would boomerang on Reagan if Carter's rescue effort falls short. That leaves unanswered the more important question: what does Ronald Reagan do if Carter's political use of the hostage tragedy succeeds, as it did last November when his approval rating dramatically rose from record lows and later in the spring, when he used it to avoid debating Sen. Edward Kennedy in the old Rose Garden days? u
For that, stand-patters in the Reagan camp have no answer, and time is growing short.