Every day in every way the Reagan administration puts me more and more in mind of an unkind put-down administered by John L. Lewis, the irrepressible leader of the United Mine Workers. It was at a critical turn in his war of secession against the American Federation of Labor. "The AFL has no head," Lewis rumbled in his withering way. "Its neck just grew up and haired over."
Headlessness has been a hallmark of Reagan administration performance in more than enough recent events having to do with foreign policy and national security to suggest that this is no series of flukes: it's a White House way of life. Part of it has to do with squalid power struggling, compounded by ideological gridlock. Another part has to do with the keepers of the Reagan flame: at all cost, it must be sheltered from the faintest ill wind.
Whatever the case, whether we are talking about big deals (preparations for the November summit or spiraling violence in the Middle East) or relatively little deals (the "promotion" of HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler to Dublin), the pattern is the same. The substance and the merits, not to mention the truth of the matter, get lost.
"Heckler's Ouster Shows Regan's Power," was the headline in The Washington Post account of how the White House chief of staff had carried the day -- as if this were Redskins vs. Cowboys and winning was everything. What Heckler's trashing showed was that Donald Regan has the touch of a jackhammer when what is called for is a dentist drill and novocaine. What it also did is cast the president of the United States as leading man in a ludicrous charade.
"Malicious gossip," the president said, angrily -- as if the gossipers were not the president's men. He crtainly did not think of embassies as "dumping grounds" -- as if that would make Irish eyes smile when it had been obvious for weeks that the White House was maneuvering for Heckler's removal. Heckler has done "a fine job," but the president thought "she might like a change of pace," he said, happily. True enough, Heckler, stony-faced, did look as if she would have given everything at that moment to be somewhere else.
Still groping, the president said earnestly that "we have a need for an ambassador, and Ireland is getting very impatient" -- as if (owing to a pronounced White House penchant for true-believing political appointees) there were not now an extraordinary surplus of competent professionals stalking State Department corridors. Even little white lies require a certain ring of authenticity.
Not so, the White House insists; if the president's sincerity is not self-evident, how do you account for his extraordinary approval ratings in the polls? "Teflon" is the explanation offered by political analysts, and indeed it may be that Reagan possesses a certain magic immunity from the credibility gap that has confounded other presidents. But there is more to statecraft than approval in the polls.
Consider the summit preliminaries: Mikhail Gorbachev is already all over American as well as European television, taking the arms control initiative, displaying in Paris a gift for smooth dissembling, for blowing hard and soft, for hitting the right European nerves in his demagoging on Star Wars. He won't turn the head of the French president, Francois Mitterrand, but his command presence will not be lost on European leaders. And his seduction of European public opinion may well pay in alliance discord.
Meantime, the Reagan administration is helping him along; in one stroke it managed to give the Atlantic Alliance the look of instant disarray. Without troubling to tell the French in advance, announcement was made of a preliminary "Western" summit of the seven powers that meet annually on economic matters (the United States, France, West Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Canada and Japan). First, Mitterrand declined. That he may have welcomed the opportunity to declare French independence for domestic political needs is no reason to give it to him.
Next, the Belgians and the Dutch demanded to know why a full NATO foreign ministers meeting wasn't indicated in the interests of proper pre- summit consultation -- the more so since both are in political difficulty at home on the question of deploying the intermediate-range ballistic missiles that the United States considers so important to its bargaining position in the arms-control talks. The administration belatedly bought the idea. But why did our allies have to beg?
Or consider, for just one more recent example, fumbling of the U.S. reaction to the Israeli air strike in Tunisia. Can any interested parties now say with certainty whether the Reagan administration "legitzes" or "condemns" or simply cannot "condone" such acts? The second-day fine- tuning of the first day's quick reflexes only made it worse, souring Israel's initial delight without mollifying the Arabs' instant dismay.
White House watchers regale us with the who-struck-Johns: National Security adviser Robert McFarlane? Regan? Weinberger? Shultz? It scarcely matters, when the bottom line is headlessness.