A majority of the telegrams and telephone calls coming into the White House since President Reagan's nationally televised speech about the Soviet downing of a South Korean airliner are critical that he has not responded more strongly, but administration officials say they expect long-term favorable results from the incident and Reagan's handling of it.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes released a tabulation of initial responses that called overwhelmingly for stronger actions against the Soviets. Speakes said the responses appeared to have been orchestrated by conservative groups.
"Over the long term people are going to look back and say that fellow they thought was a hipshooter kept his cool in dealing with the Soviets, and that's going to be a major asset for him," said one administration official. "He didn't flinch or step back, but he didn't make the world a more dangerous place."
The White House assessment is that Reagan's actions, which administration officials say were taken for policy and not political reasons, will reassure voters, especially women, who have been concerned that the president would overreact in a crisis involving the Soviets.
The tabulation of phone calls given by Speakes showed that 1,526 wanted stronger action while 734 favored the president's response. The breakdown of telegrams showed that all but 198 of 887 wanted either stronger action or were otherwise opposed to Reagan's speech.
This volume was described by one official as "slightly above average" for a presidential speech and was less than was expected. More than 5,000 people called the White House last week after it was learned that the Soviets had shot down the airliner, with 269 persons aboard, and most of the callers expressed outrage at the action.
Republican pollsters are in the field trying to assess whether the belief that Reagan should act more strongly extends beyond organized conservative groups. But the prevailing view in the White House, expressed yesterday by one official, is that "the right-wing criticism of the president underscores the restraint of his actions."
Yesterday, Trygvvi McDonald, 22, the son of Rep. Larry McDonald (D-Ga.), visited the White House, accompanied by Terry Dolan, head of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Rep. McDonald was one of the passengers who died aboard Korean Air Lines Flight 007. His son and Dolan brought a petition urging Reagan "to break off economic and diplomatic relations with the evil empire--the Soviet Union."
The phrase "evil empire" was used earlier this year by Reagan in a speech to evangelical groups in Florida, and was criticized as intemperate by moderate and liberal groups in this country and western Europe.
Trygvvi McDonald and Dolan met with national security affairs adviser William P. Clark, and seemed somewhat reassured by what Clark told them. McDonald said afterward that "we must be sure the world wakes up and recognizes the communist threat," but added that he did not favor cutting off diplomatic negotiations or canceling the nuclear arms talks scheduled to resume with the Soviets in Geneva.
The airliner incident also is viewed by the White House as potentially helpful in winning a series of votes on the MX missile, starting next week in the Senate and a House subcommittee.
"The incident is helpful to the congressional mindset on defense," said one official. "They're back home, listening to an emotional response from their constituents."
This official said that, because of the Soviet action, Democratic moderates who have supported the MX may be under less pressure within their party to change their vote. He said Reagan's response also has been helpful because of his emphasis on continuing arms control talks.
"This appeals to the moderates who are, in fact, the swing votes on the MX," the official said.
Administration officials say they believe Reagan's actions also will seem reasonable to U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere and will help to generate some of the world reaction he is seeking.
Yesterday a spokesman for the Voice of America said the VOA has doubled the number of its transmitters beamed at the Soviet Union in an effort to inform the Soviets of the international reaction to the downing of the airliner.
At the White House, Speakes refined a series of statements he has made on the incident to say that the evidence that the Soviets shot down the airliner is "practically irrefutable."
He based this statement primarily on the fact that the Soviet pilot who shot down the airliner was little more than a mile away when the attack was made, but he said the administration had other evidence beyond the transcripts it released.