The President, the press, and the policies

President Reagan is wasting no time in establishing a working relationship with the press -- a segment of the Washington establishment that can sometimes be as big a problem for the White House as Congress or the executive departments. Mr. Reagan has now held one televised news conference, changing the stock-market atmosphere that used to prevail on such occasions by requiring reporters to remain seated and be recognized. He has also had his first informal get-together with a small group of journalists. This practice, followed in various formats by other presidents, is an especially useful tool -- enabling the President to put forth his views in a nonpressurized setting and enabling newsmen and newswomen to be more probing and thoughtful in their questions. We hope the practice continues. It hardly needs saying that good presidential communication is important to effective government.

It cannot be too easy for the President, however comfortable he is with the press and with addressing audiences, to be plunging into areas in which he does not yet have substantial expertise. Campaigning is one thing. But it will take time and study to get issues, notably foreign policy ones, firmly under his belt so that he does not find himself inadvertently stumbling into diplomatic problems. He had something of a reprieve in his first full news conference, because the reporters were uncommonly restrained. But the questions are bound to grow sharper. He will have to be carefully prepared for nuances of meaning and for potential pitfalls.

What strikes us so far, however, is that Mr. Reagan is learning fast. In many areas he has begun to bring his pronouncements and positions in line with economic and political realities.

Less than three weeks after taking office, for instance, he has signaled a desire to resume arms control discussions with the Russians. While reaffirming US support for Israel, he now talks of the US doing all it can "in an even-handed manner" to bring peace to the Middle East (that is a code phrase for taking balanced account of the Arab world). He acknowledges the importance of foreign aid to American diplomacy. He has backed away from conveying an impression the US will move into the Middle East militarily in a big way. He recognizes the Palestinians have to be part of a peace settlement.

Which is not to say there are not points on which to take issue. In discussing the Mideast with reporters this week, for example, the President stated flatly that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank were not "illegal" under current UN resolutions. This overturns the consistent and proper US position over the years that the planting of Jewish communities in occupied territory contravenes international law. Mr. Reagan did allow that Israel's "rush" to settle the disputed region may be "unnecessarily provocative." This itself seems a step away from Mr. Reagan's past unequivocal backing for Israeli policies. In any case, it is likely that a closer knowledge of the facts will bring further modifications of the President's views.

We might note one more area of concern. That is the rather harsh rhetoric about the Soviet Union. It is one thing to have one's eyes open to the aggressive, authoritarian, and false nature of Soviet communism. It is another publicly to call Soviet leaders liars and cheats willing to commit any crime to achieve their goals. There are things for Mr. Reagan to learn here, among them that, whatever one believes or says in private, the public stance toward foreign communist leaders should be respectful and dignified -- if not uncritical. The whole issue of communist "world domination" and "morality," moreover, is more complex than the President suggests in his statements. We appreciate Mr. Reagan's strong feelings, but he may come to put things differently once he has experience in offi ce.

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