President Reagan, who for seven months has said that he eagerly awaited the testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, did not watch his fired National Security Council aide's first public testimony yesterday on the Iran-contra affair and instead tended to routine business in the White House, aides said.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said at a morning briefing that "the president has not had a chance to watch the hearings yet" and added that Reagan and his top aides were too involved in "carrying out the people's business" to tune in the long-awaited congressional testimony.
But Reagan had an hour's free time immediately before this briefing and another hour off in the afternoon, during which he did not watch the televised hearings, officials said.
Later in the day Fitzwater, who said that the president had watched only television news accounts of the testimony, reiterated Reagan's assertion that he had known nothing about the diversion of Iran arms sales profits to the Nicaraguan contras until told of it by Attorney General Edwin Meese III.
"The president had no knowledge of the diversion of funds and North's testimony this morning seemed to support that," Fitzwater said.
Senior White House officials, speaking on condition they not be identified, acknowledged that they were surprised yesterday by at least one aspect of North's testimony. North testified that he sent about five memos to then-national security adviser John M. Poindexter for presidential approval in which he discussed the Iran arms sale and mentioned the diversion of funds to the contras.
"We didn't know about" the five memos, said one of these officials, adding that the White House had found only one such memo. This was the memo that supposedly first alerted Meese to the diversion, and about which Reagan has said he was told by the attorney general last Nov. 24.
The senior official said that White House counsel Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. had questioned the president yesterday about these memos, and Reagan had reaffirmed his earlier statements that he did not know about the diversion.
"I think we know what his state of knowledge is on most issues," the official said. He added that Reagan was being questioned by his legal staff only about new developments that appear to go beyond the evidence already assembled by the White House.
Another senior official said that neither the memos nor any reference to them showed up in the 250,000 pages of documents the White House had provided to the joint congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair.
Reagan's seeming lack of curiosity about what North was saying appeared to contrast with his statements beginning last Dec. 16, when he asked that North and Poindexter be given limited immunity and said, "It is my desire to have the full story about Iran come out now."
In May, during the first week of hearings, Reagan told reporters he shared their desire to get the full story out. "I'm hopeful that I'm finally going to hear some of the things that I'm still waiting to learn about," Reagan said.
Last Sunday, on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. said about North, "I look forward to his testimony on Tuesday, and I know the president does as well."
The president, who will fly to New Britain, Conn., today to campaign for his "Economic Bill of Rights," expressed satisfaction with North's testimony yesterday, according to columnist Jack Anderson, who joined businessman J. Peter Grace in a discussion with Reagan on fighting government waste.
Anderson said Reagan was "jaunty" after watching a news account of North's testimony. He said the president felt it had exonerated him but complained that television commentators hadn't said that.Staff researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this report.