Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign aides, preparing for his 1980 debate with then-President Carter, received several hundred pages of anticipated questions and answers from a Carter briefing book before the debate.
Frank Hodsoll, who helped prepare Reagan for the debate and is now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said yesterday he was given "a great big stack of double-spaced papers" on a wide range of issues that might come up in the debate in the final days of the campaign.
Hodsoll said he did not know how the material was obtained or who initially received it. He said he did not remember who gave it to him. He described it as "very routine sorts of stuff" that included questions Carter might get from Reagan, and suggested responses.
Three top Reagan administration officials have been asked by a House subcommittee chairman to explain how the Reagan camp obtained the Carter briefing material. The request from Rep. Donald J. Albosta (D-Mich.) to Reagan Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, Communications Director David R. Gergen and Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman has stirred concern in the White House about ramifications of the episode.
The three officials plan to write Albosta giving their version of what happened, one of them said. All three claim they did not know the source of the Carter briefing material.
The incident was first disclosed in a new book on Reagan's first two years in the White House, "Gambling with History," by Laurence I. Barrett, who said the briefing material was "apparently . . . filched" from the Carter campaign.
Albosta said that if Barrett's account is accurate, "there may be possible violations of criminal law because of any theft that may have occurred, or for the failure to report such a theft."
Baker has said previously that he did not know the source of the material. Gergen, asked about it yesterday, said he had "no idea" where it came from. A Stockman aide said the former Michigan congressman "doesn't have the faintest idea" who provided it.
Jody Powell, who was Carter's press secretary, said Carter had three briefing books before the debate. One was on domestic policy, one on foreign policy and one was a collection of news clippings. Powell said he spoke with Baker after the first news reports of the item in Barrett's book and Baker described to him a black notebook, about three inches thick, with about 300 pages in it.
"That clearly was our domestic notebook," Powell said.
According to Powell, the books were prepared just days before Carter went to Camp David to get ready for the debate with Reagan, which was held in Cleveland.
Hodsoll said the material he received was not in a binder. He described it as "a wad of double-spaced question and answer pages on subjects like energy and foreign affairs. I read it and put it on my shelf and continued my work."
Hodsoll said the ethics of receiving the material "wasn't raised one way or the other."
He added that the material "wasn't strategic" but indicated to Carter, "Mr. President, if you get caught with this kind of question, here is the answer you should give."
A Reagan administration official who asked not to be identified said when the material came to Baker's attention, it was turned over to Stockman, who impersonated Carter in a practice debate with Reagan. Stockman, then a Michigan congressman, impressed many Reagan aides with his adept performance of Carter's role that one said was "better than Carter himself could have done."
This official said the Carter material "was not truly significant in the campaign." He said those who saw it "recall it to be issue material which was essentially a page or more per issue which had an accomplishment of the Carter administration, and some talking points about that accomplishment . . . . It was not a basis for preparing the materials for Reagan." Several current White House officials said that, to the best of their knowledge, Reagan was not told about the Carter briefing material at the time. They said they did not know if he has been told since then.
These officials said they had not made an effort at the time to determine the source of the material or to find out whether it had been illegally obtained.
Barrett, White House correspondent for Time magazine, also did not identify the source in his book, other than to say it was "apparently a Reagan mole in the Carter camp" who had "filched papers" containing most of the points Carter wanted to make.