White House efforts to improve President Reagan's political standing among women have been set back severely by public criticism from former Justice Department official Barbara Honegger, senior administration officials said today.
"She's kicked us," said one official, "and we're on the deck."
In an opinion article in last Sunday's editions of The Washington Post and in numerous newspaper and television interviews since then, Honegger charged that Reagan "reneged on his commitment" to purge federal and state laws of gender discrimination. The administration had promoted this program as its alternative to the Equal Rights Amendment.
The publicity given Honegger's charges prompted fresh debate among top administration officials about how to close the "gender gap" reflected in public opinion polls, in which Reagan receives lower ratings from women than from men. One official described the gender gap as the "Achilles' heel of this administration right now."
At a staff meeting after Honegger's article appeared, Reagan expressed dismay to aides that the White House had not done enough to rid laws of gender discrimination, according to officials. Some of his aides reportedly agreed and began preparing a statement for the president that would promise speedier action.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters today that Reagan is "very anxious" to move on gender discrimination and wants the Cabinet Council on Legal Policy to "meet immediately" on the subject when he returns to Washington after Labor Day.
After publication of what Speakes described as the "blast" from Honegger, some White House officials discussed the possibility of flying her to California, where Reagan is vacationing, to meet with him, according to sources. But they said other officials discouraged that idea out of fear that Honegger would criticize Reagan again after the meeting.
Another idea, the sources said, is for Reagan to deliver a mea culpa speech in which he vows to do more to combat sex discrimination.
A previously scheduled speech was being drafted today for him to deliver to a Republican women's group Friday in San Diego. But one official said a major speech on women's issues probably would not come until later.
"This is not the audience," the official said.
It also is not clear how far Reagan is willing to go in dealing with the gender gap. Previously, the White House has maintained that the problem is one of image or perception rather than any fault in the president's basic policies.
Questioned about this today, Speakes said, "I think we have to articulate the agenda. There is a misconception of what we are trying to do . . . . We are going to tell what we're doing and the facts will bear us out."
Speakes pointed to endorsement by the White House of a bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), that would change gender references in about 100 laws. He also pointed again to the efforts of a White House working group on women headed by deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver.
Publicly, the administration has responded by restating Reagan's commitment to help women overcome discrimination. The White House has been careful, however, not to challenge the particulars of Honegger's criticism.
One official said Honegger made a good point in saying the administration had turned its back on the "Fifty States Project" to eliminate gender discrimination in state laws.
"It has been a farce," the official said. "We have done nothing. It never had any priority; it never had any push."
Honegger, who resigned her Justice Department job this week, was described at the time by a Justice Department spokesman, Thomas P. DeCair, as a "low-level munchkin." Asked today if the White House accepted that description, Speakes said DeCair was "expressing his viewpoint of where she stood in the system. He was trying to put it in perspective, of where she fit in the scheme of things."
Speakes said of Honegger, "The last time I saw her she was the Easter Bunny at the White House Easter Egg Roll."
After some reporters laughed and others grimaced, Speakes added, "I think she was playing an important role as a volunteer . . . to make sure all the children had a good time. It's quite an admirable thing to do. It's not easy to dress up in a hot bunny suit. I've never done it, sort of ashamed to admit it."
In Washington, Honegger told United Press International that she never wore a bunny suit at the White House. However, she said, during a celebration at the 1980 Republican National Convention she wore a bunny head "at the personal request" of White House press secretary James Brady, who was wearing a bear suit. Referring to remarks by Speakes and other administration officials, Honegger said, "They should stop trivializing this and get the job done."
Officials said President Reagan's decision to ask his daughter, Maureen Reagan, to work as a consultant with the Republican National Committee on women's issues had been set in motion before the controversy over Honegger. In an interview Tuesday night, Maureen Reagan said that "the only saving grace" about the new controversy over the administration's record on women's issues "is that it's getting some attention."
But, she said, some things need to be done more quickly. The Justice Department's final report on discriminatory laws, which Speakes said would be ready next April, ought to be delivered by this fall, she said, so changes can be made by Congress before the 1984 election.
"I'm still for the Equal Rights amendment," Maureen Reagan added, "but if someone wants to amend the discriminatory laws. . . then that's fine with me." perspective, of where she fit in the scheme of things."