On a day in which the American hostages in Beirut appeared closer to freedom, President Reagan issued a sharp new warning that the United States must "overcome" terrorism and vowed that "terrorists and those who support them must and will be held to account."
Amid reports that the 39 American hostages would be moved to Syria and later released, White House officials said Reagan still was confronted by the problem of how to win release for seven others held in Beirut and how to carry out his oft-repeated vows to punish terrorists.
Reagan offered only hints yesterday that progress was being made in the two-week hostage crisis, but he used a speech in Chicago Heights, Ill., to suggest he may yet seek retribution for the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 and held a private meeting with families of the captive passengers.
Reagan returned to the White House late in the afternoon and quickly convened a meeting of his national security advisers to monitor reports that the hostages would be moved to Syria today. White House officials said Reagan was being updated on developments throughout the night.
One administration official said Reagan would make a statement at 9 a.m. today.
Earlier, in his public appearances, the only hint that Reagan gave of a break in the hostage crisis was a response to reporters' questions at a luncheon in the Bloom High School in Chicago Heights. Asked about prospects for the hostages release, Reagan said, "I am superstitious. I never talk about a no- hitter if you are pitching one."
Despite appeals from one of the hostages, Reagan insisted that the United States would not urge Israel to release the more than 700 Lebanese prisoners it is holding in exchange for freedom for the Americans.
"I only know that none of us, any country, can afford to pay off terrorists for the crimes that they're committing because that will only lead to more crimes," Reagan said.
But asked if it would be "payoff" to terrorists if Israel released the Lebanese prisoners, Reagan said, "Israel had always intended to release them, and had made that very clear. So a linkage that has tied it to our hostages is something that never should have happened."
His remark came in response to questions from reporters about the statement from hostage spokesman Allyn Conwell in Beirut to CBS News that the American people should urge Israel to release the Lebanese Shiite prisoners.
Reagan also said the United States would continue seeking release of all 46 Americans held in Beirut, despite criticism from Conwell that it was a mistake to link the 39 remaining passengers of hijacked Trans World Airlines Flight 847 with seven others kidnaped in Beirut.
Reagan was asked about the hostage crisis as he sat down at a luncheon with community leaders here to push his plan to overhaul the tax code. Questioned about Conwell's remark that it would be a mistake to hold out for release of all 46 hostages, Reagan said:
"I don't think that anything that attempts to get people back who have been kidnaped by thugs and murderers and barbarians is wrong to do. And we are going to do everything we can to get all Americans back who are held in that way."
Asked if he was saying he "won't make a deal," the president said, "No, we won't."
After a private meeting with hostage family members, Reagan elicited cheers from a crowd of 15,000 outside Bloom High School here when he suggested that the United States would seek retribution against terrorists.
"When terrorism strikes, civilization itself is under attack," Reagan said. "No nation is immune. There is no safety in silence or neutrality. If we permit it to succeed anywhere it will spread like a cancer, eating away at civilized societies and sowing fear and chaos everywhere.
"This barbarism is abhorrent," he said, "and all of those who support it, encourage it, and profit from it are abhorrent. They are barbarians."
Recalling the "bloody scourge of piracy" in an earlier age, Reagan said it was "a long fight against a great but diffuse evil" that was ended because "civilized nations refused to succumb and missed no opportunity to stamp it out."
"In our time, it is terrorism that must be overcome. We cannot accept these repeated and vicious attacks against our nation and its citizens. Terrorists and those that support them must be held to account."
Reagan coupled the tough talk with a private, 33-minute meeting in the high school library here with 29 relatives of the hostages, including six passengers on TWA Flight 847 who were released earlier. In addition, relatives of the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, who is being held separately in Beirut, also met with the president.
According to the White House, the group stood and applauded when Reagan entered the library. "We're doing everything we can to secure the safe and early return of those being held," Reagan said, according to aides. "We're constantly looking for ways to do more. We're praying every day."
Reagan answered more than a dozen questions from the family members, but the White House would not provide details. Aides said when the meeting concluded, one family member told Reagan, "Mr. President, my father is there and I want you to know I support your policies. God bless you."
Spokesman Larry Speakes said the White House is trying to "work out some way" other hostage families can meet Reagan, possibly at the White House.
John Jenco, whose brother was kidnaped five months ago, said after the meeting that the president "gave us something tangible we could reach out and touch," according to The Associated Press. "We know the president is with us and we're behind him."
["He's praying that all 46 will be released," said Mae Mihelich, Jenco's sister, according to the news service. "He said all 46 will be included in negotiating."]
Reagan's appeal for his tax plan today embraced House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), but he declined an invitation to appear with the president in this Republican district south of Chicago.
Speaking of the tax lobbyists in Washington, Reagan said, "If they think things have been hot so far, Ron and Rosty have got news for them -- you ain't seen nothing yet."
Reagan said opponents of his plan will "nibble it all summer and then try to bury it deep in the bowels of the next session of Congress." But he added that he wants a vote this year and vowed to campaign hard for it "when Congress gets back to town after summer vacation."