Breakfast with Reagan

WHEN Ronald Reagan met up with his first confrontation with bacon and eggs and a Washington breakfast group, it was back when he was a young governor. It's hard to believe as one watches this President deal confidently with the press now, but back then Mr. Reagan found his get-together with Washington journalists daunting. He kept combing his hair on his way up to the breakfast. An aide said that the governor was ``uptight'' over the ordeal.

Now a lot of years had gone by and Mr. Reagan was once again acting as host to this same breakfast group at his ``humble digs,'' as he joshingly referred to it. For an hour the President was, for the most part, sticking to his guns on positions.

No, he wouldn't back down on his call for aid for the Nicaraguan ``contras.'' No, he would not accept a tax increase. And, no, he wasn't about to support anyone -- even old friends George Bush or Paul Laxalt -- for President, before the '88 convention.

The breakfast was two-thirds over when a reporter asked, ``What is the prospect of a summit in June or are we going to get one at all?'' `We've heard no word,'' the President said. ``There was only a kind of informal suggestion that maybe September would be better and that came from one individual in their governmental structure. It was never made as a formal proposal.''

Mr. Reagan paused for a second. ``We're still sticking to the early summer [for a summit meeting] because of our own election [in the fall]. We've explained this to them, that this would be kind of complicated and heavy-duty for us to try and combine the two things. We have not had a formal answer one way or the other.''

A reporter asked, ``Could this slip through our fingers, Mr. President?''

``If it does slip through our fingers,'' replied the President, ``I've got news for them. There won't be an '87 summit in Moscow.''

This, indeed, was news. Reagan was losing patience with Gorba-chev, or so it seemed. He was making it clear that if the Soviets wanted another summit, they would have to comply with what the President thought was an agreement made at last summer's high-level meeting of the two leaders.

Was there other news at this breakfast? Had we who asked the questions that morning overlooked something? It can happen. Early in the Reagan administration, he told this group that one of his chief presidential goals was to bring about tax reform.

Perhaps no one believed that he would be able to carry through on tax reform. Or perhaps the reporters thought he was referring only to a simplification of tax forms. At any rate, little was written about Rea-gan's tax-revision intentions.

And now, looking back, it seems clear that a good story was missed. Obviously the President had been unveiling a program that would be central to his administration and one that he had every intention of putting through.

President Jimmy Carter met with this group shortly after Camp David. At one point he, casually, disclosed that he had an understanding with Prime Minister Men-achem Begin that the Israelis would cease settling on the West Bank.

Again, not too much was made of that information by reporters who heard Carter. But as time went on, it became clear that Begin didn't feel that there was such an agreement. His interpretation of the understanding was that there would be only a temporary cessation of settlements.

Looking back now, of course, it is clear that Carter was disclosing information about a major misunderstanding between two of the parties to the Camp David discussion -- a difference that would seriously undercut the results of that historic meeting.

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

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