THE third Reagan administration is about to begin, with today's expected Tower Commission report on the Iran-contra affair and the anticipated decision soon on a new chief of staff. The Tower report's findings will be amplified again - at the conclusion of the House, Senate, and special-counsel inquiries now gathering force. One need not minimize the criticism due a White House operation as confused as that described by the Iran dealings. But the report, the first objective official finding, should be received in a context for assessing the President's opportunities from here on.
Historically, other administrations have had to undergo major overhauls. Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, widely regarded as the most successful of this century, underwent several transformations. The liberal New Deal energies had run out on FDR by the late '30s. With the nation's switch to a war footing, Roosevelt brought into his administration a number of the very businessmen against whom he had railed in the mid-'30s. Even popular presidencies, like Eisenhower's, when they failed to change direction, paid the price politically in not realizing that new times were upon them.
Mr. Reagan's 1980 campaign for president underwent several phases. At first, under the campaign direction of John Sears III, Reagan did poorly in the Iowa caucuses. Finances were already heavily drained. Dissension reigned in the ranks. The next phase began the day of the New Hampshire primary: The brilliant but autocratic Mr. Sears was fired and a new team of trusted advisers brought in. The last phase - after Reagan had won the nomination - was the most impressive. Into his own team of trusted advisers Reagan absorbed the best talents behind George Bush, his adversary now become running mate. Out of that group he eventually staffed his Cabinet. This became Reagan's first administration.
Men like James Baker III and Drew Lewis and William Brock had exceptional qualities: They were astute policymakers who knew the nuances of political life and the art of negotiation. Cabinet disputes over defense and taxes still raged. Episodes like the Lebanon Marine tragedy took place. Still, the White House was saved from the acrimony and foolishness that characterized Phase 2 of the Reagan presidency, the first two years of the second term.
Phase 2 has seen the confluence of two vulnerabilities in the White House: a passive President who does not like to demand immediate accountings and resolutions of disputes; and an authoritarian chief of staff who would reportedly brook no challenge to his own leadership, which permitted the absurd Iran policies and National Security Council initiatives to run amok.
Phase 3 should see a return to the broad-based team approach. Whoever surfaces as Donald Regan's nominal replacement, it will be trusted friends like Paul Laxalt and cool administrators like Messrs. Baker, Lewis, and Brock who should set the tone and direction the final two years.
Such a step would be in the spirit of the best side of Ronald Reagan - the consensus builder. Such men think in terms of working with the opposition, of bringing together the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican Party, even fashioning compromises with the Democratic majority - much as Reagan managed to do during his gubernatorial days in California. They did this, under Baker, in last year's tax changes. They are working on constructive approaches to trade legislation. Even joint White House-congressional action on welfare reform and health care reform are looking more possible.
Until composure and a healthier atmosphere are restored to the White House, however, action on matters like arms control and contra arms funding would be better put off. This administration needs to recuperate a bit. Phase 2 has come to a deeply disappointing conclusion. The Reagan administration should take a breath and start off Phase 3 on a more constructive footing.