Ironically, the little-noticed Los Angeles Times story that set off last weekend's national uproar over the White House's tax-the-jobless idea was run on page four under a "Peanuts" strip in which Charlie Brown is telling Snoopy: "Your idea for a special dish (for Thanksgiving) was turned down."
Apparently missing its significance, Times editors cut reporter George Skelton's scoop that President Reagan was considering this now-departed proposition to a six-inch, bare-bones Thanksgiving morning item. Whether the juxtaposition with "Peanuts" was intended is not known.
As Post reporter David Hoffman wrote later, journalists who accompanied Mr. Reagan to California contemplated a sunny, warm holiday uncomplicated by any hard news. En route, White House spokesman Larry Speakes was telling pool reporters the White House had options to combat unemployment that would go beyond the well-publicized gasoline tax increase. From that, The New York Times ran a front-page story, also on Thanksgiving morning. There was no reference to taxing jobless benefits.
The Post had reported essentially the same information a week earlier. In a page-one story featuring Senate Budget Commitee Chairman Pete V. Domenici -- unemployment had "reached a point where it is politically unacceptable" -- writer Helen Dewar noted that the administration "confirmed that it is considering several proposals to help reduce unemployment." Like The New York Times, the story identified some of the proposals, but not the tax on out-of- work benefits. Understandably, Post editors felt the paper was well on the record with what was known.
The Los Angeles Times story was subsequently confirmed by Mr. Speakes, who tried in vain to persuade the press not to concentrate merely on "the tip of the iceberg." The Wall Street Journal chose a different metaphor -- "raw meat" -- to describe what was out there. For the press to do what the spokesman was asking would be to expect a stone to roll uphill. With feeling for Mr. Speakes, there was no way.
The subject may be a new one, but the scenario by which it became a political casus belli is not unfamiliar. Various presidents have been blind- sided by the aberrant ideas of others. In this case, the press coverage to date is conflicting as to whether Mr. Reagan had in fact contemplated blessing the proposal. On and off the record, the overwhelming view now is that he did the humane thing in giving it a quick burial.
The Post is still working on the issue's origin. It is known that the new chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Martin S. Feldstein, was a proponent of taxing unemployment benefits in the past. In a 1974 article in the National Tax Journal, Mr. Feldstein wrote, "Including unemployment compensation in taxable income would reduce the adverse incentives and direct a larger share of the total net benefits to families with lower incomes," thus overcoming the "inequities of a tax system that . . . taxes earned income more heavily than the unemployed benefits received without working." Since 1978, as newspaper stories have pointed out, benefits are exempt from taxation up to $18,000 for a family, or $12,000 for an indi- vidual.
Likewise, all stories reflected Mr. Speakes' word that the package of proposals was developed by an administration task force, the Council of Economic Advisers and White House staff. Presidential counselors Edwin Meese III and Michael Deaver have denied promoting the controversial one or that it was under "serious consideration." There was only a "first pass at these ideas," Mr. Meese has said. In sepa- rate remarks, Mr. Meese appeared to rationalize the controversial one: ". . . there are many families . . . who are earning almost as much on unemployment as they would in their regular jobs."
As David Hoffman said in his story Monday: "Their missed signals and the rest of the episode shed light on how detached Mr. Reagan is from the policy detail of his administration and how awkwardly that policy is sometimes developed and made public in his White House."