Recent reports of misstatements and unintended revelations by President Reagan have once again caused concern among his aides, who are considering ways to modify his contacts with the media, according to administration sources.
In an Oval Office interview with six reporters and a campaign-style swing across southwestern states during the past three days, Reagan at times mangled facts and sentences, and, at other times, displayed an unremitting candor that appeared to defy cautious, carefully measured statements of advisers. The morning after the Oval Office interview, in which Reagan seemed to be groping for answers about his Central American policies and made surprising revelations about U.S. support for guerrillas fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua, his senior staff discussed ways to restrict such interviews in the future, according to the sources.
They said White House officials were angry at newspaper reports, particularly one in The Washington Post, that described in detail the rambling, sometimes confusing nature of Reagan's answers.
The half-hour interview had been broadcast by public address system into the White House briefing room, where reporters laughed and expressed puzzlement at some of Reagan's comments. Officials said this procedure will probably be discontinued.
"There is a feeling that it whipped up the press a lot more than was productive," said White House communications director David R. Gergen.
For Reagan and his advisers, the president's performance when speaking his mind without a prepared text is not a new concern. His political career has been defined by cycles in which his advisers "let Reagan be Reagan" because of the persuasive way in which he often expresses himself, only to wrap him in a protective cocoon after a series of misstatements or oral blunders.
The pattern has been repeated often since Reagan's days as governor of California and was a central theme running through his 1980 presidential campaign. It could be significant for his decision on whether to seek a second term.
His senior aides have said they expect him to run again. But there are still some doubts about his age and health, particularly his faulty hearing, that are nurtured by incidents like those of the past few days.
On a political trip that many view as a precursor to a 1984 reelection campaign, Reagan flew Thursday to San Antonio for a speech to Hispanics. While airborne he conducted a telephone interview from Air Force One with San Antonio radio station WOAI. The interviewer asked about Soviet Leader Yuri V. Andropov's most recent remarks on negotiations to cut back nuclear arms.
At first, Reagan said, "if it is a real offer, I could approve it" because of the Soviets' willingness to count nuclear warheads instead of missile launchers, although he cautioned it might be "just a propaganda ploy."
Administration spokesmen had expressed interest in the Andropov move, while its arms-control experts privately minimized its potential for making a deal with the Soviets possible. Reagan inadvertently contradicted those experts by suggesting he could "approve" an agreement based on what Andropov said.
Reagan apparently didn't catch this, but an aide did. As the plane was landing, Reagan told the interviewer over the telephone, "I just had called to my attention here" that he had used the word "approved."
"And, I may have given people the wrong impression by using the word 'approved,' " he said, "and what I should have said is we're looking seriously at this to see whether it's for real or whether . . . it's just propaganda."
Later, in his San Antonio speech, Reagan boasted to the Mexican-American audience that he had appointed 130 Hispanics to "high-level" administration positions. Then he introduced Joe Salgado, an Immigration and Naturalization Service official, as "our associate director of education." The crowd applauded, but some White House officials winced.
Such factual mixups have long been a problem for Reagan. Around Labor Day, 1980, Reagan made so many misstatements that campaign manager Stuart Spencer put him under wraps, cutting off spontaneous give-and-take with reporters and having him deliver only written speeches. Reagan's confidence was reportedly restored and the restrictions were eased somewhat a few weeks later.
In debating now how to respond to Reagan's rhetorical miscues, some White House officials said that they believe the best solution would be more exposure. Recalling how Reagan came out swinging in the 1980 New Hampshire primary and benefited from it, they said Reagan has always been at his best when forced by frequent news conferences to sharpen his thinking.
Some White House officials said Reagan was not adequately briefed for the Oval Office interview this week, but others disagreed. Another suggested explanation is that Reagan, without television cameras present, was expecting a relaxed conversation. Instead, he was questioned closely.
Some White House officials also spoke with concern about Reagan's hearing, which they said seems to have deteriorated in the last year. Although questions to Reagan are amplified during televised news conferences, they are not in Oval Office interviews. Some aides said this may cause Reagan confusion.
At a briefing to introduce former senator Richard Stone (D-Fla.) as his special Central America envoy, Reagan was interrupted by Stone, who told the president he had not heard a question correctly.
After a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in March, Reagan was unable to hear a question over the public address system. Nancy Reagan, sitting beside him, repeated the question, but he was still unable to hear it. Finally, he was given a written copy.