IN trying to think through the troubles of Ronald Reagan and arrive at some understanding of how such a successful administration at the start has become so mired down now in difficulties, I find my mind has wandered to the sad story of King Edward VIII of England, better remembered as the Duke of Windsor. There is something similar about the two stories. Both careers started with high promise. Both ended in frustration. In the case of the King, in total futility.
Mr. Reagan's career is not ending in any such futility. He had major achievements during his first four years. But today he is a frustrated man. He can do only what his advisers and the Congress choose to let him do. The power of decision has passed out of the Oval Office.
The embarrassing result is that we have a President who one day proposes to put the United States fleet into the Gulf, but a couple of days later the project is put on ice. One can't help remembering the ditty about:
The Grand Old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the Hill,
And then he marched them down again.
In Reagan rhetoric of 10 days ago the US seemed to be marching toward war with Iran. We may be back on that course tomorrow. But there is a growing gap between the President's rhetoric and the action following therefrom. He is off to an economic summit in Venice but what the others there are watching is not what Reagan says, but what Alan Greenspan, newly named successor to Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, looks likely to do.
What went wrong?
In the case of King Edward VIII the answer comes through loud and clear. During the days of the coronation crisis his future American wife, Wallis Warfield Simpson, kept telling him, in letters and on the telephone, ``Remember, you are the King.''
But being King in Britain in those days was one thing in government reality and another thing in Mrs. Simpson's mind, and to some extent in the King's mind. Neither of them had been students of British constitutional history. Did either of them even remember that one English King, Charles I, lost his head on the scaffold, for insisting on ``being King.'' By the time of Edward VIII, being King in England was having what Teddy Roosevelt called ``a bully pulpit.''
People listened to what King Edward VIII had to say. He was front page news. But power of decision had long since passed to the Houses of Parliament. The King could persuade, sometimes. He could not command. Wallis Warfield Simpson and Edward Windsor spent the balance of their lives in expensive futility. They had misread the power of the office.
Written all through the record of the Iran-contra affair is evidence of misreading the power of the office. From the President on down through his successive national security advisers, his director of central intelligence, Col. Oliver North and the scores of those who ran clandestine airlines to funnel secret funds to illegal counterrevolutionaries, there ran a general assumption that the President had the authority and the right to do all such things.
He was President. He wanted the contras supplied. He told his aides to do it. They did it. US Ambassador to Costa Rica, Lewis A. Tambs, was the perfect lieutenant for Reagan. In his own words ``when you take the King's shilling, you do what the King says.'' He never read the law, or thought about it. He did as he was told.
In the minds of everyone associated with the operation there was an assumption that what the President wanted to do was automatically legal and right, and to be done. They ignored the facts of the American political system. One such fact is that it is a system of checks and balances. The president can command only with the consent of the Congress.