A White House official suggested publicly for the first time yesterday that the United States is willing to engage in a summit meeting with a Soviet leader other than ailing President Leonid I. Brezhnev.
Norman Bailey, director of planning for the National Security Council, told a breakfast meeting of reporters that it would be "entirely appropriate" for President Reagan to meet with Premier Nikolai A. Tikhonov if Brezhnev is too ill.
"The Soviet leadership is in considerable disarray," Bailey said. "Brezhnev is quite ill, and this situation could continue for some time. There are a number of candidates to succeed him and no obvious successor. For all practical purposes, there has been a collective leadership in the Soviet Union since Stalin died, and this has become more evident recently.
"So it may not be realistic for the president to meet with Brezhnev. But it would be entirely appropriate for him to meet with someone like Tikhonov, who is premier and head of government. He's not considered a likely successor to Brezhnev and therefore would not be perceived as threatening to other members of the Politburo," Bailey said.
Brezhnev is president and head of state while Tikhonov is premier and head of government.
The bluntness of Bailey's remarks reportedly disturbed high-level White House officials, including national security adviser William P. Clark. Until yesterday, administration officials had refrained from publicly commenting on Brezhnev's illness.
White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes, commenting on Bailey's statements, said, "He was giving his own views and not necessarily those of the administration."
Bailey said later in the day that he was speculating frankly about the course a summit might take. But he added that the Soviets are "very anxious" to have a summit and are being restrained only by Brezhnev's illness.
"At this point, we're throwing out signals saying that we should have a summit, and they're throwing signals back saying, 'Don't be precipitous,' " Bailey said. "Brezhnev's illness is the reason."
Bailey cited President Johnson's meeting with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in 1968 as a precedent for a presidential meeting with the Soviet head of government. Although Kosygin held the same position as does Tikhonov, he was a far more powerful figure in the Soviet hierarchy until his death in December, 1980.
Bailey's comments reflected a widely held view in the administration that a summit will be held when the question of Brezhnev's availability is resolved. "I'm betting on a summit this year," Bailey said.
On April 4, in a question-and-answer session in the Oval Office, President Reagan invited Brezhnev to meet him in New York in June. Reagan said then that he would go to New York to address a U.N. conference on disarmament and invited Brezhnev to do the same.
Administration spokesmen subsequently declined to describe any such meeting as a summit. Brezhnev rejected the proposal, suggesting instead a fall summit in Europe.
At the time he issued his invitation, Reagan was careful to observe protocol, saying "we have no confirmation" that Brezhnev is ill. Privately, however, administration officials have described Brezhnev's illness as the major barrier to an immediate summit, and Bailey put that on the record yesterday.
One administration official said Bailey "even in speculation said more than he should have said," but the official also expressed the view that a summit is likely this year.