President Reagan, it develops, is almost the only person at the White House who doubts the persistent stories of rivalry and intrigue among his principal aides.
These "tales," he told several reporters in an interview, are "a great exaggeration."
And indeed, it may all be malarkey. But the stories--usually starring James Baker, the chief of staff, and William Clark, the national security adviser, as principal antagonists--have carried the bylines of experienced senior reporters with excellent sources.
They portray Baker as the leading "pragmatist," urging Reagan to meet Congress halfway on budget and foreign policy issues. They portray Clark, and his ally, Edwin Meese, White House counselor, as guardians of the vestal flame of true "Reaganism."
The president is baffled. What happens, he explained, is that he likes "all the options" to be argued out in his presence. Then he alone decides. Inevitably there must be a losing side. But nobody wins all the time.
My own guess is that Ronald Reagan is, in such matters, Richard Nixon turned upside down. Nixon, a born intriguer, suspected plots where none or few existed. Reagan, who thinks everyone is as guileless as he, sees none or few even when the West Wing floors are slippery with blood.
There has always been conflict among presidential advisers. The Reagan administration would be a bizarre exception to the rule if there were none in the White House now. But these perennial conflicts are always played out in a different way, depending on the president's personality and working habits.
President Roosevelt, whom Reagan professes to admire, took delight in pitting gingham dogs against calico cats and sitting back to watch the cloth and stuffings fly. He deliberately set up competing lines of authority; it was an administrative technique, controlled chaos.
But to get good results from bureaucratic conflict, a president must be both knowledgeable and attentive. Ronald Reagan gives the convincing impression that he is neither. The president's strong attitudes seem unrefined by reflection, and unburdened by information. He rarely talks impromptu for more than a few minutes without saying something that makes mildly well-informed people wonder whether he does his homework.
When Reagan's own grasp of the issues often seems sketchy, the disagreements of his advisers assume an unusual salience.
But the Reaganauts are almost certainly wrong in believing that Reagan's conservative instincts are being cleverly sabotaged by Jim Baker and others who promote timely political compromise. "Let Reagan be Reagan," they say. But Reagan usually is Reagan--never more so than when, in his recent interview with the press, he seemed to undercut his administration's declared policy on the legitimacy of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
But since Reagan isn't much given to political dialectics, he isn't much bothered by bloopers and inconsistencies that would have mortified most presidents.
It didn't, for instance, strain his self- regard to yield last year on the "revenue enhancement" bill passed by Congress --a pragmatic deficit-cutting move over which the Reaganauts still grind their teeth. For while the measure reversed his tax-cutting policy significantly, it was sold to him as a tax-collection bill; and that distinction satisfied him.
With equal ease, he can blast the "evil" Soviet system one day in Orlando, Fla., and announce soon afterward that the United States will offer generous grain sales to the same "evil empire."
All presidents are mixtures of conviction and compromise. Reagan's peculiarity is that he sometimes seems blithely unaware which is which. Still, the notion prevails on Reagan's right that all would be well if only Jim Baker and his ilk could be sent packing. Then, they say, Reagan could be Reagan.
But the truth is that he is rarely anybody else. And that, increasingly, is the problem with his presidency.