A close-up of the President

THE President was facing reporters on the Monday morning after the Saturday night roasting of himself and his administration -- and the Democrats, too -- at the annual white-tie dinner of the Washington Gridiron Club. ``Mr. President,'' said the columnist moderating the breakfast with Mr. Reagan at the White House, ``I am very happy to see you survived Gridiron. Some presidents in the past have become angered at the barbs aimed at them -- and never come back. But you seem to take them without batting an eye. How do yo do it?''

``Well,'' Mr. Reagan said, ``anyone who has been schooled in Hollywood to the Friars' Club roasts would find even the sharpest quip at Gridiron still a little mild.'' There was laughter from the reporters, columnists, and editors who were on hand to question the President. ``So,'' he added, ``I think I've been conditioned.''

The President had taken some pretty good licks from the 60 members of Gridiron -- mostly newspaper bureau chiefs and a few columnists -- and from other speakers on the rostrum. Even his good friend, the secretary of Treasury, James Baker, put it to him: ``The President,'' Mr. Baker told the audience in the Capital Hilton Hotel, ``called me very excited the other night when he got back from Canada. He'd heard about the bank holiday in Ohio. He wanted to know if we all got the day off.''

Geraldine Ferraro stuck it to the President, too, on much the same subject. ``I see the President,'' she joshed, ``has relented on emergency relief to the farmers. He's opened a special line of credit for them to be drawn on any Ohio savings-and-loan.''

And the Gridiron soloist and chorus needled Mr. Reagan with a parody of Willy Nelson singing ``On the Road Again,'' in which a couple of lines said: ``It's old Ron again, Gonna jump-start old Ron again,'' and some other lines said, ``Keep him right and don't let him doze again,'' and ``Leave a wake-up call and tell his men.''

Mr. Reagan kept smiling through it all. When it was his turn to speak, he kidded himself a bit. ``I got some good news from Geneva,'' he said, and then turning to his wife, alongside at the head table, he added: ``Nancy, your watch is ready.''

``To break the monotony of the presidency,'' Mr. Reagan said, ``every few days, I call CBS and ask for Jesse Helms.''

At the morning meeting with the media, the President was mostly serious. There was a bit of wit. And the tone he set was, as usual, one of good humor. It was an opportunity, mainly, to examine the President at close range. Here in light that could not be called favorable, Mr. Reagan still looked surprisingly young. Other impressions of the President:

Mr. Reagan is very comfortable in meeting with the press in this manner. His aides say he enjoys this context, and he shows it. He doesn't particularly like the TV press conferences where he has to be ``up'' for the stage performance. Further, he sometimes has trouble in hearing the questions. However, the President is able to respond in conversational tone at these breakfasts -- this being his third annual get-together with this group.

The President's ideological commitment comes through clearly in answers to so many of the questions: His belief that only out of hard-nosed approach to the Soviets can come progress toward arms control. And his conviction that government spending and the government sector must be reduced.

Mr. Reagan has never wavered from those positions over the years in the presidency -- despite criticism from right-wingers that he has altered his ideology under the influence of moderate Republicans working at his elbow.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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