too much, some might say -- has been said lately about Ronald Reagan's trip to Bitburg, which is to take place Sunday. But there is a particular aspect of the affair that remains to be commented on. It sprang to mind while I was reading what the president himself had to say on the subject during an interview with reporters this week.
He said, among other things, that he blames the press for the controversy that has swirled since the announcement in mid-April of his intention to lay a wreath at the German military cemetery. Reporters, the president said, have "gotten hold of something, and like a dog worrying a bone, they're going to keep on chewing on it."
True, since April 12, when The Post's David Hoffman first reported this troublesome addition to the president's itinerary, it has been a rare day that the subject, in one of its various aspects, hasn't been reported on. But whether the press dug up the bone of Reagan's metaphor or was merely there to receive the toss isn't a question I am going to address here. What interests me is another group that has been gnawing at that same bone.
This group is harder to blame, I suppose, because it is harder to identify. It has no collective name. "The American people" would be a bogus exaggeration; the "People of the Washington Metropolitan Area" would be beside the point. The people I have in mind come from all over, though most do reside around here. They have this in common: they have written us letters, hundreds of them. The amount of correspondence on the subject of the president's visit to Bitburg has been, quite frankly, staggering. The mail lately has been about little else. This newspaper published a sampling last week.
The correspondents are veterans and Jews -- the two groups forever being cited in news stories as objecting most vehemently to the Bitburg affair. They are also war brides and war orphans and even a few war-mongers. They are people born before World War I and long since World War II. Mostly, though, they are people without "affiliation." Wrote one correspondent, "Let me . . . add my non-Jewish, non-military but human voice of dissent."
No, not all the letters have protested Reagan's decision. Quite a number of people have written to express their support; the need for reconciliation has been a predominant theme. But the far greater number of letters has been an expression of outrage, disappointment or bewilderment.
The yes-or-no votes -- he should go, he shouldn't go -- implicit in these letters don't represent some sort of semi-scientific poll, and I don't offer them as evidence of such. But surely they do represent something. And lest somebody at the White House blame the press for not only "bone- chewing" but also inciting these letter writers, there is this to consider: the fact that a story appears on the front page holds little sway with readers. They tend to respond in proportionate numbers to what interests them, what angers them, what pleases them. These are things that do not necessarily appear on page A-1. A small item on a red-light runner can set off a storm. In this case, a somewhat larger item set off a larger storm.
The Bitburg letters say something about how strongly people who are not professional journalists feel on this issue. By Kathryn Stearns; The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.