When the President was at his best

The television age was rolled back the other day at the White House, and everyone present - and perhaps the public, too - benefited from it. The President met with a group of reporters from the print media. And, as in the days of Franklin Roosevelt up to the time of John Kennedy, TV cameras were nowhere around.

The questions were probing and covered a wide range of issues. But the atmosphere, unlike that at presidential press conferences, was a pleasant one. The writers probed, but adversary journalism had been left at the door to the state dining room.

The televised news conferences often generate a feeling of two armed camps - the President and his administration on one side and the press on the other. Reporters vie for their spot in the sun - an opportunity to ask a question with some 60 million viewers watching.

On television the press conference in effect becomes a big show. The President instinctively leans heavily on his acting skills. Under so public a scrutiny, he becomes excessively guarded, lest he commit a blunder that might rock the nation or the world.

But in the less formal setting of a breakfast at the White House, the President came across quite differently. As the journalists filed out after this hour-long session, several commented that the President had dealt with details far better than he had in recent press conferences.

''Can it be,'' one Washington bureau chief said, ''that Reagan is just that much better at 9 a.m. than he is at 8 p.m.? I doubt it. I think he's just looser when he doesn't have to worry about that massive TV audience.''

The President and his staff exercised no control over the selection of those who came to the session. This was a long-established group, made up of some of the best professional journalists in Washington - bureau chiefs and nationally-syndicated columnists. Among them were many columnists whose views were not at all consonant with those of the Reagan administration. Yet, while always pressing to try to get news out of the President, they asked the hard questions without heat and dramatics. Were these newspaper veterans ''softened'' by all the presidential hospitality? Were they excessively polite because they were guests as well as reporters at the White House?

No punches were pulled. The reporters touched on some of the President's embarrassing problems, such as the controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency, and explored his positions on such sensitive issues as the economy, the Mideast, the Soviet Union. At one point the President said he envisioned enlarging the multinational force in Lebanon after the country was ''stabilized.'' Whereupon one often tough-talking national columnist asked: ''How much of an enlargement of forces do you have in mind, sir?''

The President said that he could not answer that question - that a ''military review of what the responsibility would be'' would have to come first.

The questioner bored in on his subject but actually said ''sir.'' The reporters, without TV cameras on the scene, found it possible to be courteous without relenting in their efforts to hold the President's feet to the fire on a number of issues.

As one bureau chief remarked afterward: ''The President was himself today. . . . So often on TV he just doesn't look like he understands the subject matter. But today he did.''

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