We have to consider the possibility, in reference to the brouhaha over the Legal Services Corp. board, that the Great Communicator failed to transmit clearly to his appointees what he wanted them to do.
He may well have said, "Demolish it." They must have heard him say, "Impoverish it."
How else can it be explained that his choices have been soaking Uncle Sam in a shameless manner? They are acting like the poor people Reagan cites so often: the food stamp recipient who buys vodka with his change, the welfare queen in her Cadillac.
When his efforts to kill the agency failed -- Congress and the American Bar Association are unaccountably fond of it -- the president started packing the board with saboteurs. They did better as buccaneers, running up bills more than double those of their predecessors.
Rep. M. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.), a member of the House Judiciary oversight subcommittee that is looking into the board's expenses and a man given to measuring his words, observed, "It sounds like the first thing they do was to go and put all four feet and a snout into the trough."
Reagan has had it in for Legal Services since his days as governor of California, where the local agency kept bringing, and winning, class-action suits against his rich friends, the agribusiness growers.
The Republicans are furious. Seven House members fired off an indignant letter to the president and told him he would do well to surrender in his long war against Legal Services. Rep. Harold S. Sawyer (R-Mich.), who is hardly the bomb-throwing kind, told the president that the conduct of his appointees was "an embarrassment to us and becoming a political liability to you."
Sawyer, who for more than 30 years was an attorney in Michigan and became a senior partner in a 70-member law firm, is an ardent partisan of Legal Services. His firm contributed $10,000 a year to the agency.
"You can't tell people to stay off the streets and then not give them access," he says. "Sure there have been abuses. There was that Connecticut case where they represented someone wanting a sex change. But there are few."
Sawyer is only one of many Republican congressmen who sigh that they could provide Reagan with distinguished Legal Services board members who would gladly serve for nothing.
Among the abuses, the contract of legal Services Corp. President Donald Bogard has stirred special fuming and cackling around Washington's yuletide punch bowls.
Bogard approached government service the way lawyers approach their arrangements with private corporations, Butler notes. That is, in the spirit of greed.
The sweets provided Bogard, whose deal with the government was negotiated for him by William F. Harvey, chairman of the board and a former law professor of Bogard, are truly startling. He gets, in addition to his $57,500 salary, a full year's severance pay, benefits and expenses if he is fired.
He gets unlimited room and board, two trips a month to his Indianapolis home until June and a membership in a private club, presumably to compensate him for the tedium of consorting with the poor.
Dan Rathbun, 23, a divinity school student, is Reagan's odd idea of a Legal Services "client" representative for the poor. Rathbun's qualification as a poor person is that he has declared financial independence from his family, although his parents still claim him as a dependent.
He will not, in any case, be poor for long. He has collected $1,032.07 in consulting fees in two months.
The board's fees are so high that Butler remarked sardonically that he was not sure the oversight subcommittee could afford their testimony. They charge $29 an hour just to think about Legal Services.
As usual, when confronted with the spectacle of the rich getting richer, the administration was ambivalent. White House counselor Edwin Meese III said he thought where "they donate a lot of time and the law provides consulting fees, they should take consulting fees."
In the midst of the furor, William Olson, who has received $19,000 in consulting fees in the year he has been on the board, went on the McNeill-Lehrer report, and took the offensive. He called the current scandal a "smokescreen" raised by certain congressmen who resent the fact that the new board no longer funds "the left and their leftist constituencies."
His adversary on the program, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), pointed out that one of the signers of the protest letter to the president is Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an ardent conservative from Illinois. "The suggestion that Hyde is a leftist front is, frankly, pretty funny."
Frank says he believes that this particular Washington Christmas story will have a happy ending. "Reagan has made the Legal Services stronger politically than it has ever been."