Reagan in 1987: a year of survival

RONALD Reagan proved in 1987 that he is a survivor. The President had his worst and best of times: from the Iran-contra scandal to this month's missile-reduction pact with the Soviets. At year's end, with the euphoria of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit not entirely spent, there was even talk that these two leaders would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.

Not all the President's adversaries are willing to grant him a complete recovery from his troubles. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd, for one, expects that in a few weeks the glow cast by the signing of Europact will fade, and before very long in the new year the President could again be struggling to keep his head above water.

Still, Mr. Reagan's comeback in 1987 is notable. Consider how Lyndon Johnson was knocked out of office by his greatest crisis, the Vietnam war. Richard Nixon was finished by Watergate. The act that caused Gerald Ford's popularity plunge - the Nixon pardon - did in his election bid. Jimmy Carter couldn't get beyond his own Iran crisis, over the hostage crisis.

At year's end President Reagan wasn't hiding away with his family. He was celebrating with the satisfaction that comes to those politicians who have barely, albeit by the skin of their teeth, escaped an irreparable blow to their career.

Nancy Reagan had a lot to do with the Reagans' battle back from adversity - no one knows for sure how much. She was incensed over the Iran-contra affair, convinced that those around her husband had failed him. Some, like Rear Adm. John Poindexter, she might have seen as villains: They had in her eyes stolen away the brightness of the Reagan presidency.

Mrs. Reagan played a role in sweeping out the President's inner circle, most notably the dismissal of chief of staff Donald Regan. And it was really her hand that was behind the assembling of the attractive, highly acceptable new group of White House advisers, including Howard Baker Jr. as chief of staff.

Of course, it was the President who brought all this about and should be credited for it. But the story that persists - and which I find credible - is that it was Mrs. Reagan who brought the toughness and decisiveness to these important and very much needed shifts in personnel.

The President is known to suffer long with inadequate aides and to move slowly to replace them. He took up this task more expeditiously in the Iran-contra affair, even telling people he liked personally that they had to leave. But it was Mrs. Reagan who prodded the President to make the needed changes of personnel.

What got the President through this crisis? Was it summitry, even Mikhail Gorbachev, that rescued him? Not really - certainly not totally.

Washington observers will in due time note that what really got Reagan through the Iran-contra affair was the way he responded to it.

Much had been written about Reagan's misstatements during press conferences and speeches. And Attorney General Edwin Meese's handling of the inquiry into the diversion of funds to the contra has been sharply condemned.

But it was the funds diversion aspect of the scandal that could have brought Reagan down. From the moment that Mr. Meese brought the matter to his attention, the President made the matter known publicly. Then he immediately pledged White House cooperation to try to bring all the information relative to this incident to the surface. This was enough to hold his own against his critics; it was the opposite of Mr. Nixon's response to Watergate.

The President maintained he did not know about the funds diversion. Nothing came out of the testimony that showed he knew. Certainly, many Americans believe he knew - or should have known. But there was no ``smoking gun.'' Nothing emerged to justify impeachment - or even to encourage talk of impeachment.

So that's how the President was able to endure his worst of times.

From survival to superpower summit triumph - 1987 was this President's most remarkable year.

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

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