Ronald Reagan appears to have weathered the Iran-contra storm, unruffled by the howling voices on Capitol Hill and the scowling reporters who dog him. I visited him in the Oval Office on the day Lt. Col. Oliver L. North began his testimony. The president seemed unperturbed by the mini-furors exploding around him, and was still a conciliatory figure, with the same infectious amiability.
The same appeal was at work in his voice, an instrument made pleasing to the ear by the affections, enthusiasms and sorrows that played through it. But I thought I detected a slight shrillness, just a hint of acrimony, in his tone when he spoke about press coverage of the Iran-contra scandal.
The president said he had been too busy to watch North's appearance, except for 10 minutes of highlights during lunch. He understood that the colonel's testimony confirmed his statement that he had not been told about the diversion of funds to aid the contras.
Yet none of the television reporters had mentioned this, he complained, in their summaries of the testimony.
Reagan reiterated that he had no advance knowledge of the illegal use of excess profits from the arms sales to Iran, that he wasn't even told the Iranians paid an above-market price for the American arms. The U.S. government, he said, collected the full market price -- $12 million. "I'm still trying to find out who raised the price," he said.
For his first six years in the White House, Reagan floated cheerfully above such squalls as mere reporters could stir, secure in the esteem of a majority of Americans. Try as they did, reporters could not find a story that would shatter the Reagan imagery. Not until the Iran-contra scandal exploded upon the front pages were they able to crack the shell of immunity that surrounded Reagan.
Yet he feels he has been a victim of press scourging that has illuminated every mishap in his administration. The process is described inside the White House as "pig piling." Accusation after accusation against the Reagan administration has been highlighted in the news media. Most charges have been ill-founded, overblown or oversimplified, the president feels. But as they have piled up, they have created an atmosphere around Reagan that stifles his ability to govern.
I heard these complaints less from the president than from his assistants. He merely made a kidding remark about the "tough time" this column occasionally has given him. But his embattled aides are deadly serious about the news media assault upon the president.
All Reagan wants is the kind of neutrality asked of the Lord in the story about the country boy who was running along a railroad track inside a long, narrow tunnel while a train bore down on him from behind.
As hope of escape withered, he cried out, "Lord, if you can't help ME, for God's sake don't help the train!"