The press, and what it's saying about him, is very much on President Reagan's mind these days.
Answering a greeting of "Happy New Year" at a party in Palm Springs, Calif., the president said to this reporter and NBC's Andrea Mitchell, "You could make it a lot happier."
This friendly and Reaganesque reply reflected a naive view, not uncommon to politicians and particularly to presidents, about the proper role of the press in a democracy.
This view is that the press is supposed to report on official decisions and otherwise do as it is told.
White House counselor Edwin Meese III, who shares many of Reagan's attitudes, put it that way recently, referring to what he called "Gresham's Law of Journalism." As codified by lawyer Meese, it is that "bad information drives out good."
"Bad" information includes what Meese terms "the gossip" about staff infighting and presidential indecision. "Good" information is the reporting of official decisions made at the timing and convenience of the White House.
Actually, many in the press reported a story both good and bad, saying the president's staff and key congressmen were changing some of his most cherished economic assumptions. It was "good" in that it showed what a flexible fellow Reagan can be when he isn't talking for public consumption. It was "bad" in that it depicted Reagan as being less in charge than he is supposed to be and the subject of faint ridicule by some members of his own staff.
George Reedy writes in his recent biography of Lyndon B. Johnson that "the manner in which a president treats the press eventually becomes the manner in which he treats the public."
What Reagan did was to go into what one aide called "a towering rage" and order that all contacts with the press by White House officials be on the record. He was talked out of that, an official told me on grounds that he not be identified, but White House chief of staff James A. Baker III abandoned a two-year fight against an anti-leaks policy and agreed to promulgate one.
The task of churning out the guidelines to accomplish this was left to communications director David R. Gergen, known to some of his co-workers as "the great leaker." Gergen produced eight verbose instructions that nonetheless carried a clear message: talk to the press on the record and stick to the official line.
The guidelines are a joke. In their first week, the press was as full as ever of "leaked" stories. And the stories of staff conflict continued.
On Thursday night, in a razor-sharp piece, NBC's Chris Wallace quoted White House aides on the subject of presidential disarray. The Washington Post reported on the same subject throughout the week. And on Friday, Gergen found it necessary to make an on-the-record correction of what he called "a bum story" in The New York Times saying that national security adviser William P. Clark was responsible for the guidelines.
Gergen was talking for internal consumption. He knows that the Baker section of the White House was suspect for blaming Clark in the first place.
Presidential assistant Richard G. Darman, the most suspect, spent part of his busy week relaying accounts of serious and social calls from reporters to the press office, taking up the time of people already overburdened when responding on deadline. At that, it was a more preferable activity than what Darman tried the last time he was an object of suspicion--then he asked for the phone logs of other aides.
All of this would be silly and unimportant, except for what it tells about the mentality of the president and those who purport to serve him. After experiencing the Nixon and Ford administrations, Gergen should know that leaks serve several purposes, one of them to protect the president from embarrassment.
It would have been useful to the White House a year ago, for instance, if someone had leaked the disastrous policy of granting tax exemptions to segregated schools and thereby prevented its implementation. The "leak" that the administration was considering taxing jobless benefits was politically harmful, but the policy it may have prevented would have been far more damaging.
But the benefits of leaking are less on Gergen's mind these days than they used to be. He said Friday that Reagan has been damaged by "the perception that somehow he is detached, isolated, that he's been ganged up on by his staff, that the process is in disarray, all those kinds of stories." And he added: "I believe that a lot of those stories would threaten the presidency if they continued."
If the Reagan presidency is really such a fragile, hot-house flower, then it is threatened by something far more fundamental than these stories.
Reaganism of the Week: Speaking to special envoy Philip C. Habib about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the president said: "People say she's the best man in Europe."
And then there's this observation by gagster Robert Orben: "I'd be surprised if Ronald Reagan doesn't run again. To us it's a second term. To him it's a double feature."