A week ago, this column reported that President Reagan and his trusty band of advisers intended to gather together in the Los Angeles smog on Aug. 21 to discuss strategy for the fall reelection campaign.
Shades of Lyndon Johnson, who was wont to cancel announcements if the news leaked out ahead of time. According to an administration official, Reagan decided that the August meeting was receiving too much advance publicity, raising expectations beyond anyone's ability to sustain. The official said the president then decided to call off the meeting.
As is often the case, the extent of the president's direct participation in the decision-making process is unclear. Whatever Reagan had in mind, the cancellation solved some practical problems for White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, who wanted to keep the meeting small and functional.
After the strategy session became public, a number of past, present and would-be advisers, who were concerned they'd be cast as outsiders if they didn't come, made it known they'd like to be invited. Now, everyone remotely interested can let it be known that he was asked to participate in what has become a nonexistent meeting.
All this fits with Reagan's historic pattern of running for president. In 1968, when his torchbearers were trying to start what they called "a prairie fire" for Reagan, and again in 1976, when a new team of strategists was plotting to unseat President Ford, Reagan stayed so distant from the process that even some of those around him began to doubt whether he would run.
He is by nature a fatalist who, with Nancy Reagan, keeps his own counsel. He is also an intuitive politician who likes to preserve his options to the last moment and sometimes even beyond.
Is Reagan running for a second term? Sure, say his advisers. The White House has been in a reelection mode for weeks, unleashing a bewildering variety of themes, commissions and appointments undertaken with 1984 in mind. A reelection committee is scheduled for formal launching in October. Under the law the president will become a candidate unless he disavows the committee within 15 days.
As in the past, Reagan seems disconnected from such workaday activities. Once again, he has succeeded in creating slight doubts about his political intentions and injecting a note of suspense into a drama that would otherwise be considered cut-and-dried. It is vintage Reagan.
Back in the real world, the president's Task Force on Food Assistance will get off to its euphemistic start under the leadership of J. Clay LaForce, dean of thegraduate school of management at the University of California at Los Angeles. The White House, increasingly sensitive to the "gender gap," delayed announcing the appointment until today to make sure that the 12-member task force will include several women.
It tells you something about the Reagan White House to know that a chief element of what debate there was about the proposal concerned whether to call the new body a task force on "food" or on "hunger." The advocates of "hunger" lost because it was pointed out that using this word might be too public an admission that hunger exists in America.
"I don't know whether these reports of hunger are anecdotal things from which some members of the press and political opponents are generalizing or whether there are genuine pockets of hunger," said White House counselor Edwin Meese III, who has pushed the proposal. "The president sees these stories on television, and of course you can't believe the television. He wants to find out what's happening."
There are others in the administration, less willing to be quoted, who wince at this definition of the problem, if not at the equally questionable assumption that "television" is out to do in Ronald Reagan.
"You can watch the TV or walk down the street and know that there are hungry people around," one White House official acknowledged last week. "We should have been willing to say that straight out."
Instead, the White House sent out Robert Carleson of the Office of Policy Development to deliver a burst of obfuscation that refused to concede that administration cuts of food stamps or child nutrition programs had anything to do with hunger. When Carleson was asked how he reconciled the food stamp cuts with the task force, he replied that the president "makes it quite clear that there shouldn't be hunger, at least hunger unnecessarily of the people who would want otherwise to be fed."
Coming up next, one supposes, is a Bipartisan Commission on Necessary Hunger in America.
Substitute Reaganism of the Week: What is now referred to in the White House as "the caveman joke" retired the Reaganism award for last week. This, of course, was the attempt by the president to show the civilizing effect of women in which he said that "if it wasn't for women, us men would be still be walking around in skin suits carrying clubs."
Moments before he delivered this ad-lib to the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, Reagan apologized for a mix-up that had denied this group a White House tour.
"Murphy's Law is 'if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong,' " he said prophetically. "And Murphy's Law was very much in effect yesterday at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."