President Reagan begins a 23-day vacation in California today that is being planned solely to give him a quiet convalescence from cancer surgery before an anticipated heavy September schedule.
The White House staff is going to unusual lengths to steer clear of official business. Among other things, chief of staff Donald T. Regan has decided to take his own vacation and put deputies in charge of the vacationing presidency.
The president is "trying to take no work with him" to Rancho del Cielo, his 688-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains northwest of Santa Barbara, one White House official said. The staff is "under strict orders not to push him," the official added.
A planned Reagan visit to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise Aug. 14 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of VJ-Day was canceled because it was felt the trip could overtax the recuperating president. Vice President Bush is planning to attend the ceremony instead.
At the White House compound in Santa Barbara, which is set up at a seaside hotel, Regan's deputies have been given rotating shifts of responsibility for day-to-day events.
The White House has been sensitive about its vacation operations since Reagan's lengthy 1981 California trip, when then-counselor Edwin Meese III failed to wake the president after U.S. Navy planes downed two Soviet-built Libyan jets over disputed Mediterranean waters.
Since then, the senior official in charge during Reagan's California vacations has sought to keep Reagan informed of events and respond quickly to possible crises or political controversy.
During Reagan's first term, the triumvirate of Meese, then-White House chief of staff James A. Baker III and then-deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver rotated as the official in charge of operations in California. Now, with Meese heading the Justice Department, Baker heading the Treasury Department, Deaver out of government, and Regan as the undisputed strong man at the White House, a different rotation is being established, one that will put less senior officials in charge during parts of August.
Among those slated to be in charge this week for several days at a time are communications director Patrick J. Buchanan, departing political director Edward J. Rollins, domestic affairs adviser John A. (Jack) Svahn, Regan assistant Dennis Thomas, and others. A White House official emphasized that these aides will be serving as deputies to Regan, not as substitutes for the chief of staff.
National security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane or his deputy, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, are also expected to be in California throughout Reagan's stay, for any national security emergencies.
Another sign of White House expectations for a quiet vacation was given last week when spokesman Larry Speakes announced that he would hold press briefings only three days a week, instead of the usual five. Despite some protests from reporters, Speakes has insisted on skipping the Tuesday and Friday briefings, saying he wanted to give the reporters some time off.
Reagan is expected to return to Washington Sept. 2 to begin a busy month devoted to tax, spending, farm and trade issues, and a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. During the California trip, the president and Mrs. Reagan will spend four days in Los Angeles, where he is expected to attend a California Republican Party fund-raiser, see an allergist and dine with old friends from southern California.
For all the hopes of a quiet vacation, the experience of Reagan's presidency has been that major events almost always intrude while he is seeking relaxation at the ranch.
Speakes has often admonished reporters that Reagan can conduct the presidency just as easily from the ranch as in Washington, using high-technology communications. But officials have often privately pointed out that Reagan is, in fact, isolated at the ranch and not able to meet quickly with a group of advisers in a crisis.
When Korean Airlines Flight 007 was downed by a Soviet pilot in September 1983, Reagan at first hesitated before deciding to leave the ranch and return to the White House; Bush took charge of the crisis group.
Other events have also intruded on Reagan's California sojourns. The Soviets have made several nuclear weapons proposals over holiday vacations. A controversy over raising taxes on unemployment benefits preoccupied officials during another holiday. The withdrawal of the Marines from Beirut also occurred as Reagan was on his way to Rancho del Cielo.
Reagan has often talked with emotion about days spent clearing brush, fixing split-rail fences and chopping wood at the ranch, and he may be longing for California even more than usual because a scheduled July 4 trip was scrubbed during the Lebanon hostage crisis involving TWA Flight 847. But this vacation, the first since his intestinal surgery July 13 to remove a cancerous polyp, promises to be a little different from those in the past.
"I think as far as ranch chores, it'll be somewhat different from previous times," Speakes said. "I think he'll take it slowly, recovering. I don't know whether he will get on a horse right off the bat. I think he'll just kind of play it by ear and do whatever he feels comfortable with. It may be the latter part of the trip before he wants to ride."
"I think the president's stay at the ranch will be rest, recuperation, as always, keeping abreast of what's going on, spending a third to a half of his time, at least, involved in government work," Speakes said.
Reagan told reporters last week that doctors have suggested he stay out of the sun because of the possibility of recurrence of the minor skin cancer removed from his nose.
White House officials said Reagan will use sun-block lotion or wear a wide-brimmed hat. Reagan has often planned ranch projects -- such as a new fence or irrigation system -- before going to California, but no such projects are on the drawing board for this trip