Washington — ``Would you please hold for the President.'' The President?
Hmm, I thought, it's probably some jokester pulling my leg. I waited.
Good grief, it really is him.
``Why, yes, Mr. President.''
It was my first telephone call from President Reagan -- or any president -- and it came the morning after last Wednesday's televised news conference. He was concerned, he said, that the press conference had not ``worked very well'': He had tried to put down some names, including mine, and he was preparing to call on me when UPI correspondent Helen Thomas called the conference to an end with the customary ``Thank you, Mr. President.''
He was frustrated about how things turned out, he said. Would I care to ask my question now?
The subject was Michael Deaver, who is under investigation for possible violation of conflict-of-interest laws. ``Would you agree with Treasury Secretary Jim Baker's view that the administration should avoid even the appearance of any impropriety, and do you think -- without going into the substance of the issues -- that Mr. Deaver was negligent in this regard?''
Mr. Reagan said he felt constrained in discussing the subject because of the investigation under way. But he said he did not think Mike Deaver would ``knowingly'' do anything contrary to ethical standards.
A follow-up question: Would he share Jim Baker's view that the ethics law should be tightened, perhaps extending the ban on lobbying activities by former public employees to five years after they leave office?
The President said he would like to see what people have in mind. Some things in the legislation which the Senate is working on go to ``extremes,'' he said, and would make it difficult for people leaving government to go back into the private sector. A lawyer, for instance, he commented, would not be able to have a foreign client, or a doctor -- he chuckled -- could not have a foreign patient.
So, he said, a review is needed also on the things that make it necessary to get good people to work for government. The President said he wanted people to come into government when it would mean a sacrifice. He did not know, he suggested, how long people would do that if they had difficulties after leaving office.
``Now that I have you on the phone, Mr. President, would you mind my asking another question?''
The President was gracious. The rule at a press conference is one question plus a follow-up. But he answered a couple more questions -- this time about SALT II.
Later that day the White House disclosed that Mr. Reagan had devised a new system of calling on reporters in press conferences, jotting down the names of reporters on index cards as well as the position of the reporter in the room and code numbers to help him locate the right person. His purpose was to get away from always calling on the same reporters.
It turned out to be a poor night for the President. He faltered at times and misunderstood two questions. He confused the Supreme Court abortion ruling with the Baby Doe case and, in answer to a question about Warsaw Pact proposals for troop reductions, talked about a Soviet proposal to reduce strategic nuclear arms. In one instance, he said he had ``goofed'' in linking Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's name with Qaddafi, Castro, and Arafat in a recent speech.
The President acknowledged to aides that the new cards had distracted him. He was upset, said a White House official, and was determined to concentrate henceforth on what he was going to say.
In our 10-minute conversation, it was I who had trouble concentrating.