In what may be a preview of the foreign policy debate between President Reagan and Walter F. Mondale next Sunday, their top campaign officials yesterday fueled the increasingly emotional debate over past U.S. involvement in Lebanon.
James A. Johnson, Mondale's campaign chairman, vowed that the Democratic nominee will "have it out" with Reagan over Vice President Bush's charge that Mondale believes that the servicemen killed in Beirut "died in shame."
Appearing on "This Week With David Brinkley" (ABC/WJLA), Johnson tried to use the issue of embassy security -- particularly the Sept. 20 truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex in east Beirut -- to accuse Reagan of a "failure of leadership" in Lebanon specifically and in foreign affairs in general.
Later on the program, Reagan's campaign chairman, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) accused the Mondale camp of taking a "cheap shot" at Reagan on the issue of security in Beirut.
"I think this whole matter of laying at the door of the president of the United States the fact that there's been some kind of culpable negligence there in connection with protecting our people is unfair. It's a cheap shot," Laxalt said.
As part of his strategy to focus on foreign policy, Mondale devoted his weekly paid political radio address yesterday to arms control, saying Reagan's proposals for antisatellite weapons would "squander hundreds of billions of dollars."
Mondale summarized Reagan's approach to arms control as: "If there's an arms-control agreement, oppose it. If there's a dangerous weapon, buy it. If the Pentagon wants a blank check, sign it. If there's a crucial fact, don't learn it."
Bush handed the Mondale camp what they considered a virtual godsend in their effort to move foreign policy to the forefront of the campaign. In his debate Thursday with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro, Bush defended the U.S. involvement in Lebanon by saying, " . . . For somebody to suggest, as our two opponents have, that these men died in shame, they better not tell the parents of those young Marines."
Mondale angrily demanded an apology, calling Bush's statement "unpardonable" and releasing to reporters a transcript of his remarks the day the Marines were killed in the bombing of their headquarters, last Oct. 23.
Bush's press secretary, Peter Teeley, yesterday repeated that there would be no apology, saying, "We've got good quotes from her and him. That is not an issue. They have clearly stated their position, which clearly justifies what the vice president said the debate."
Johnson yesterday called the Bush remark "the kind of issue where I think implicitly they're challenging Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro on a basis that's not appropriate."
"We're going to go into the debate next Sunday night and have it out," Johnson said.
Using the terrorist bombings in Lebanon to attack Reagan's leadership, Johnson said: "Ronald Reagan had three opportunities in Beirut to do the job that's his -- that is, to provide adequate security for American personnel. He failed once, then he failed twice, failed a third time. That's a legitimate issue in this campaign."
Laxalt defended Reagan's record and called terrorism "a very tough item to meet." He pointed to last week's hotel bombing in Brighton, England, which nearly took the lives of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet.
In 1980, Reagan criticized President Jimmy Carter for what he called a lack of leadership in failing to protect the U.S. Embassy in Tehran from a takeover by militants. In their televised debate that year, Reagan told Carter: "We had adequate warning that there was a threat to our embassy, and we could have done what other embassies did -- either strengthen our security there or remove our personnel."