President's disclaimers may not clear air on debate-book ethics
Washington — The question now is whether President Reagan's news conference comments Tuesday on the Carter debate-briefing papers have cleared the air and taken the steam out of a potential scandal.
On the one hand, Mr. Reagan flatly denies he knew that any information given him in advance of the 1980 debate had come from the Carter camp: ''It seems strange to me that, since I was the debater, no one on our side ever mentioned to me anything of this kind.''
Such a strong denial, coming from a President whose credibility rating is particularly high, just might silence accusations that the President and his campaign organization acted unethically and, perhaps, illegally.
At the same time, the White House released large quantities of information that seemed to confirm that top Reagan aides did indeed have access to the inner workings and strategy of the Carter campaign. More specifically, there were papers that related directly to how Carter planned to shape his debate.
Ted Van Dyk, executive director of the Center for National Policy, prepared the Carter briefing book in 1976 for his debate with Gerald Ford. He also prepared Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's briefing book in 1980 for a debate with Carter that never came off.
In an interview, Mr. Van Dyk gave this assessment: ''If one candidate should get his hands on a definitive briefing book of his adversary, there is no question that it would help him in a debate. But if what he picks up are rough working papers, it wouldn't make much difference in a debate.''
Here Van Dyk was clearly saying that if, as the White House aides indicated, all they had received was rough working papers, it wouldn't have helped Reagan very much, if at all.
But here, speaking of the ethics involved, Van Dyk added: ''Whatever these papers were, it was espionage.''
So a big question still lingers: Will the ethics question be swept away by the President, who says he had no knowledge of the happening? And will the possibility, if not likelihood, that the Carter papers were not all that valuable to Reagan in the debate hasten the sweeping away?
Patrick Caddell, Carter's pollster and senior political adviser, says ''no'' to this. ''The question about ethics is the larger question,'' he asserts, ''larger than the incident itself.''
He adds: ''We paid a mighty price in this country, in pain and anguish, to establish that certain things should go on in politics.
''What we have here is an appeal by the administration to cynicism - in the public and in the press - about our political processes: that this [Carter briefing incident] is business as usual, politics as usual. Should this incident be treated in this way, it will confirm what some cynical observers have said - that what Watergate was really about was getting Richard Nixon, not getting him for what he did.
''I'm sick and tired of people saying, 'Everyone does it,' '' Mr. Caddell says. ''That's what the White House line is. But politicians are just as honorable as people in academia, or in the media, or in business. Everyone doesn't do it.''
President Reagan, in the press conference, said that he was against a ''double standard'' in politics - where certain practices considered unsavory elsewhere would be accepted in political life.
But in answer to one question, he implied strongly that he thought politics did enter into the Democratic push to try to nail him and his people for wrongdoing. Some critics of the President are already calling the incident ''Debate-gate'' or ''Briefing-gate.''
Even before the press conference, Reagan had asked the Justice Department to look into the case. And when asked if he had ordered the department to conduct an investigation, he said: ''I've called it 'monitoring,' but that's what it amounts to. I've said to find out if there was any wrongdoing and take action.''
But now, the overall question: Will it all go away? The President, in treating with much detail the many questions directed to the briefing papers, hoped he was putting it all behind him.
A phone conversation with Bert Lance, who has had his own experience with charges of impropriety, evoked the assessment that these charges would probably not reach the intensity of any major scandal - unless the President turns out to be involved.
And that highly partisan political leader in Congress, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., may be helping to quiet a potential scandal by saying that the outcome of the debate didn't make any difference - that a very unpopular Carter would have lost the election anyway.
One Reagan aide, in advance of the press conference, confided that the Reaganites in the White House had, by their own admission, bumbled their handling of the briefing papers controversy. He said that the White House advisors had thought that by playing down the happening, by encouraging the President to assess it, as he did, as ''much ado about nothing,'' they had made a mistake. ''All this did,'' he said, ''was to give it all a longer life.''
So it was that the President responded in length to question after question on the subject Tuesday night, suggesting its possible relevance to the coming presidential campaign.