Information about two Americans held hostage in Lebanon was transposed in some editions yesterday. A photograph of Terry A. Anderson, chief Mideast correspondent for the Associated Press who was kidnaped March 16, appeared above biographical information about Kenneth Anderson of Fox River Grove, Ill., who was a passenger on TWA Flight 847. A photo of Kenneth Anderson was not available.
President Reagan asked national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane last week whether there were any guerrilla staging areas in El Salvador that could be struck in retaliation for the terrorist attack that killed four U.S. marines and nine civilians on Wednesday, according to informed sources.
When McFarlane replied that it would be difficult to do so without killing innocent civilians, Reagan reaffirmed his view, outlined at his Tuesday night news conference, that such a response would be "an act of terrorism itself."
Similarly last week, White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan and political adviser Edward J. Rollins, often at odds in their recommendations, joined in urging some sort of U.S. retaliation, either in response to the shootings in El Salvador or the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847, administration sources said.
Reagan's "wait it out" strategy for dealing with the Middle East hijacking, combined with his pledge not to make concessions to terrorists, has won strong initial approval from the public, according to published and private polls.
But, as the internal discussions at the White House last week revealed, the president's advisers believe the public could turn swiftly against Reagan if the 40 American hostages in Lebanon are not released within the next few days.
"There is always a 'rally-around-a-president' in times of a catastrophe," a senior White House official said. "As time goes on, the frustration will go up very quickly."
Some of Reagan's advisers anticipate adverse public reaction if the president goes through with his plans to take a 10-day vacation, beginning Friday, at his California ranch while the hostages remain in captivity. That schedule is expected to be reviewed this week.
The basic White House strategy for dealing with the domestic political implications of the hijacking of Flight 847 was hammered out Monday in a meeting between the president and his top advisers. They agreed that there should be no changes in Reagan's weekly schedule, which, by coincidence, was unusually busy.
"It was a conscious decision not to let the president's schedule and agenda be dictated and determined by the kidnappers and terrorists in the Middle East," Buchanan said. "That was also the overriding consideration in proceeding with the press conference."
Where the advisers disagreed was on how much Reagan should be identified with the crisis. McFarlane reportedly argued that "the crisis should be kept away from the president" and that responses should come from the State Department and national security officials.
Rollins disagreed, saying that "the president has to pay at least as much attention to it as 230 million Americans are; we can't say it's not happening."
Buchanan also disputed McFarlane's advocacy that Reagan should read a statement at the news conference and then decline to take any questions about it. The communications director contended that this would make Reagan appear ineffective in a crisis.
Reagan decided on a middle course of picking and choosing the questions he was willing to answer.
In making the decision to stick with his schedule, Reagan was said to be aware that it was the opposite of the course followed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 when the U.S. Embassy was seized in Tehran. Carter canceled his schedule, including campaign trips to Iowa, and remained in the White House to deal with the hostage crisis.
Reagan's decision was compared by one official to the course taken by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and its crew. Johnson strongly denounced the seizure, then returned to his regular schedule while negotiations went on to free the Pueblo crew.
But Reagan's advisers say they think public opinion will sour long before the 10 months that it took to free the Pueblo crew, or the 444 days that the U.S. hostages were held in Iran.
Presidential pollster Richard B. Wirthlin observed that Carter's approval ratings both rose and fell during the Iranian hostage crisis. The initial increase in public support helped turn back the 1980 Democratic primary challenge of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), but the continued captivity of the hostages contributed to Reagan's efforts to portray Carter as a weak and indecisive leader.
"If the past is any guide to the present, the president has more time than the 90 days before public opinion turned against Carter," said Wirthlin. "Expectations are not as high as they were then, and Americans have been through this before."
But some of Reagan's advisers draw the opposite conclusion from the same facts. They say that the repeat nature of the hostage crisis is likely to make Americans even more frustrated and impatient than during the Iranian hostage crisis, and in a shorter period of time.
They also think that Reagan will be compared, not with Carter, but with people's expectations of Reagan. Referring to Reagan's promise in January 1981 of "swift and effective retribution" against terrorist acts, one official said, "People really believe this president and they will be expecting him to deliver."
Republican pollster Robert Teeter thinks it is this "Reagan versus Reagan" comparison that will be most important in the long run.
On the one hand, says Teeter, Reagan has always been judged more charitably by Americans than was Carter, whose leadership was questioned long before the Iran hostage crisis. On the other hand, Teeter believes that the current crisis has deprived Reagan of one of the strongest attributes of his presidency: his ability to control the agenda.
Despite two trips by the president to discuss tax revision and his participation in meetings on other subjects, the hijacking and the shootings in El Salvador dominated last week's agenda.
"People are doing the things they're doing, but you simply can't focus the country's attention on budget reduction or tax reform or water projects when the newspapers and the networks are preoccupied with the hostage crisis," said one official. "You've got to continue with the schedule and make the speeches you were going to make, but you've got to deal with the world as it is. This is a total distraction."