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The Morning After in America

Thursday, October 22, 1987; Page A02

The usual way of handling crises at the White House -- at least since Herbert Hoover -- has been for the president to call in the wise men to the Oval Office, sit them down and tell them to fix it.

That is not Ronald Reagan's style. Since the stock market lost 508 points in a single day and set off memories of 1929, the president has been acting as if Wall Street were on another planet.

He has communicated with a frightened, baffled public -- and you didn't have to be an investor to have the willies -- largely over the roar of the helicopter that takes him on daily visits to his hospitalized wife.

The first day, he shouted that the economy was in good shape. The second day, he said it was all Congress' fault. The third day, he said that only people who refused to buy -- and, of course, the press -- could bring on a recession. Embarrassed aides were explaining that his "Who-me, what-crisis?" approach was a considered strategy to avert panic.

During a photo opportunity with the president of Honduras, who looked like a spectator at Wimbledon, Reagan answered reporters' questions about a budget summit with Congress with a grudging, spiteful, "We'll listen to them -- they have never listened to us."

Yesterday's big news was that he would hold a news conference, the first such exercise at the White House since last March. It was a truly stunning development. Reporters immediately leapt to the conclusion that he would announce the only summit he wants -- with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But this was not the case. That wonderfully diversionary prospect could not be unveiled until next week.

As usual, Reagan was being judged on his own terms. Members of Congress were enormously gratified that he sent up his chief of staff, Howard H. Baker Jr., to open negotiations for a meeting. It was hailed as a near-miraculous change of mind. Members heard that it came about because his rich friends had been calling up to complain that they had lost their shirts in the crash.

"The Eagles {top Republican contributors} were screaming," said one congressman.

The initial talks were carried out amid an atmosphere of conciliation, members reported. House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III, who has been calling for budget negotiations since last November, was much set up that OMB Director James C. Miller III's defiant, Day Two announcement that if defense cuts and tax increases were on the table, there would be no talks, had been rescinded.

"The problem is," says Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen, "that the president is a very strong ideologue and he finds it extremely difficult to adjust to the realities of a changed situation."

Obviously Reagan has resisted calling in the experts from New York and Capitol Hill because he senses that they all will tell him the same thing: that the budget deficits, which he ignores, are suffocating the market, that tax increases, which repel him, are inevitable and that cuts in defense spending are unavoidable.

He has an almost religious faith in the infallibility of free-market forces. Greed and need will work together for fiscal good. The bull-market was the touchstone of his claims of "Morning in America." To admit it is late afternoon or maybe even twilight goes totally against the grain. To raise taxes is the moral equivalent of saying that Reaganomics are indeed the "voodoo economics" of George Bush's memorable, since lamented, 1980 analysis.

Wall Street has lost more than its shirt in the chaos. It has lost its reputation as a smart, prophetic, sensitive force, a combination of pirate and fortune-teller, a kind of Cumean Sybil for the nation. The Sybil, celebrated by Virgil, lived in a cave near Naples, and her counsel was much sought by Roman generals and statesmen and togaed yuppies. Scholars have since speculated that her cave gave off noxious gases causing her to issue cloudy forecasts to her clients.

Wall Street was Reagan's accomplice in the five roaring years of a bull-market they thought would never end. It didn't take a graduate of the Harvard Business School to figure out that a trillion-dollar defense buildup and a hefty tax cut added up to red ink. But Wall Street went along. In the last three years, the trade and budget deficits have steadily mounted, and Wall Street looked the other way, thinking, Gray says, "that something was going to be done."

Skeptics were referred to the market as proof positive that the handwriting on the wall was the work of a forger, doubtless a Democrat.

But the financial community is ready to admit that it is the morning after the biggest binge in its history. The president hates to say the party's over.

© Copyright 1987 The Washington Post Company

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