Henry A. Kissinger, once viewed by President Reagan as a symbol of U.S. foreign policy failure, is expected to use his new position as chairman of a bipartisan commission on Central America to become deeply involved in Reagan administration policy-making in the region, senior officials said yesterday.
"It's Henry's nature to dive into things and become totally involved," one official said. "We expect that he will express his views within the family."
Another official added: "The scope is broad, and I'm not sure it's been defined by us or by Henry Kissinger."
There was even a joke making the rounds in the White House: that Kissinger, who has never been noted for his shyness, will "see the problem in terms of East-West relations and then want to go to a summit to solve it."
All of these comments, and others, added up to the realization within the administration that Reagan, in appointing Kissinger as chairman of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, had done something quite different than what he had done in naming two previous bipartisan commissions chaired by quiet Republicans noted for their collegial and self-effacing qualities.
These commissions, on Social Security and the MX missile, were low-visibility operations designed to work out consensus compromises.
In the case of Kissinger, the administration opted for what one official called "high visibility and controversy" in dealing with issues where public opinion surveys taken for the White House show declining voter confidence in the administration's course in Central America.
Former senator Nicholas F. Brady (R-N.J.), one of 12 persons named to the commission yesterday by Reagan, said that the Kissinger appointment reflects "a feeling that this Central America is an urgent problem that needs some highlighting."
"I presume an ever-widening debate on Central America," Brady said. "It's bloody serious."
The White House had planned to name the rest of the commisssion later in the week. But when the names of many of the commissioners became known and when Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York announced that he had declined to serve on the panel because he is too busy, the White House put out a formal list of commission members late yesterday.
Besides Kissinger and Brady, the panel will include Henry Cisneros, mayor of San Antonio; former Texas governor Bill Clements; Yale economics Prof. Carlos F. Diaz-Alejandro; National Federation of Independent Business President Wilson S. Johnson; AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland; political scientist Richard M. Scammon; Boston University President John Silber; retired Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart; former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert S. Strauss and William B. Walsh, the president of Project Hope.
U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was named as the president's representative to the commission. In addition, the panel will consult eight senior counselors from Congress named by the president on the recommendations of congressional leaders.
Conspicuous by their absence from the commission were any outspoken critics of U.S. policy in Central America. One administration official said, however, that he expected one of the congressional counselors would be Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), who has been consistently critical of administration policies in the region.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), who will also be one of the counselors, said he had felt "we had to have a pretty liberal complexion on the commission that would be willing to support some new initiatives by way of reform, in other words, a left-of-center approach."
But it was widely acknowledged within the administration yesterday that the commission Reagan had appointed did not meet this criterion. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said he regretted that the commission was not truly bipartisan, pointing out that House Democrats had been asked to name only a couple of advisers.
Strauss, the most prominent Democrat on the commission, said that he would be a "highly independent" member and said he had "substantial disagreement" with much of Reagan's Latin American policy. He was not, however, optimistic about what the commission would achieve.
He said that when he was awakened by a telephone call Sunday night and asked to serve, he turned to his wife and said, "You know that is really a loser."
The idea for the new commission first arose in discussions between Jackson and White House officials in January. Jackson said he agreed with Reagan's frequent assertion that the "military is a shield" but said that "we need a program behind that shield."
As bipartisan support for the commission built in Congress, administration officials became increasingly aware of the rise of popular opposition to involvement in Central America.
"It was evident in Congress, in the polls, everywhere," said one official. "The president's speech to Congress in April stemmed the tide but didn't reverse it."
After that speech, administration officials seized on the idea of a commission that would consider a long-term aid program to provide economic assistance for Central America, such as the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe.
But in discussions at the White House, this idea shifted to the administration's immediate goals and problems in the region, and became what one source called "a commission to consider an affirmation of the policy rather than an evaluation of the policy."
Kissinger had played a consulting role to the White House on Middle East policy, and his name first surfaced to head the commission, officials said, in discussions between national security affairs adviser William P. Clark and his deputy, Robert C. McFarlane.
Clark circulated a memo to Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Kirkpatrick, CIA Director William J. Casey and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
According to one source, all were "surprised" by the recommendation but all responded with an "effusive" endorsement of Kissinger.
The Kissinger idea was embraced by that group of Democrats known as "neo-conservatives," represented in the administration by Kirkpatrick and in the Senate by Jackson, who has opposed Reagan domestic programs while frequently giving him support on foreign policy. Jackson met twice with Clark at the White House last week to discuss the appointment.
Jackson said yesterday that Clark had told him that the idea for Kissinger had "come directly from the president."
There were those in the administration, however, who said that Reagan had to be convinced that naming Kissinger, President Ford's secretary of state whom he frequently criticized in the 1976 presidential campaign, would be in the interests of rescuing his own Central American policy.
When Reagan was asked about the public criticism of Kissinger yesterday, he shrugged it off by saying to reporters, "You had to have something to talk about."
But it wasn't only the reporters who were talking about Kissinger's impact. It was a favorite topic of discussion inside the White House, where it provoked heated discussions at the senior staff meeting about how the announcement of the appointment was handled.
One official said that Kissinger "resigned several times before he was named," a reference to his reluctance to become chairman because of the time it will require him to spend away from his foreign policy consulting business.
The White House yesterday was still reviewing Kissinger's business dealings for any possible conflict of interest. However, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that if any problems come up they "will be resolved."
There were some who speculated that Kissinger's return might put Shultz in the shade on Central America, but an administration official jokingly discounted this prospect.
"Henry wouldn't try to take over the policy" this official said. "He might want to return to office as secretary of state but not as assistant secretary of state for Central America."