Washington — It will take the perspective of history to sort out the pluses and minuses of the Reagan era. But for the moment the White House continues to face a barrage of unflattering comments about the President's style of leadership that is damaging the view of his presidency. In a book published today, former Reagan domestic policy adviser Martin Anderson defends most of the administration's record with partisan fervor. But he reinforces the general impression of a President who is passive, disengaged from policy discussions, and highly dependent on his personal aides.
``He made no demands and gave almost no instructions. Essentially, he just responded to whatever was brought to his attention and said yes or no, or I'll think about it,'' writes Mr. Anderson in ``Revolution.'' Reagan's intimate aides - Edwin Meese, Michael Deaver, Richard Allen, Lyn Nofziger, and others - all knew this, says Mr. Anderson. They ``kept it a secret'' and simply adjusted to his manner.
``So everyone overlooked and compensated for the fact that he made decisions like an ancient king or a Turkish pasha, passively letting his subjects serve him, selecting only those morsels of public policy that were especially tasty,'' the author states in a proof copy of the book. ``Rarely did he ask searching questions and demand to know why someone had or had not done something. He just sat back in a supremely calm, relaxed manner and waited until important things were brought to him. And then he would act, quickly, decisively, and usually, very wisely.''
Such characterizations of the President's laid-back managerial style by former close aides are far from new.
In a book published several years ago, former White House budget director David Stockman voiced frustration over Reagan's unwillingness to believe the economic numbers put before him. Former aide Deaver wrote about how he forced Reagan to take action, and former press spokesman Larry Speakes exulted about how he had manufactured quotes for the President. And former White House chief of state Donald Regan, in his recently published book, draws a picture of presidential lassitude.
Presidential historians see a pattern to all these accounts that will have a bearing on future assessments of the Reagan years.
``The Tower board [which investigated the Iran-contra scandal] also said the President is detached,'' comments presidential scholar Thomas E. Cronin. ``So evidence is accumulating, and historians will have to evaluate it.''
Says the author of ``The Presidential Character,'' James Barber: ``These people had such different relationships to the President and they're coming out with similar characterizations of his passivity. That makes one think there is something to it.''
Scholars caution against premature judgments about the Reagan presidency. James MacGregor Burns, author of ``The Power to Lead,'' says: ``These books add to the tapestry of coverage of the President's personality. But in the long run these gossipy accounts that deal with sensational trivia do not add up to very important insights. These have to wait for an analysis of decisions that actually make up the burden of history.''
The writers of such books, says Professor Burns, are treating those aspects of the Reagan presidency that are weakest and silliest. ``In history that will be important,'' Burns comments. ``But in history this man has done something remarkable. He has led the making of the Republican Party into a solidly conservative party, and he has won. As a liberal and a Democrat, I'm rather impressed.''
Fred I. Greenstein, a biographer of President Eisenhower, notes that the historical record has to draw on documents generated in the White House, including tapes and video films, as well as testimony from a wide variety of sources. The Princeton scholar recalls how his views of an ``out to lunch'' Eisenhower changed as he began to research that presidency. He found, for example, that Sherman Adams, Eisenhower's closest aide, was wrong when he wrote that the President was very reluctant to use the telephone and therefore received communications only in person. Notes kept by Ike's personal secretary, says Greenstein, disclosed countless telephone conversations that Adams did not know about.
Unlike the authors of kiss-and-tell books, Anderson, who was head of the White House Office of Policy Development, is not an embittered critic of the President. He argues passionately that Reagan, through his supply-side economic policy and buildup of American military strength, has wrought a ``revolution'' in society representing the triumph of capitalism over liberalism and socialism.
Anderson, who left the White House in 1982, describes Reagan as ``highly intelligent'' and possessing a ``photographic memory.'' He lauds the President's ability to absorb information and reshape it into ``new, coherent packages'' and then convey his ``thoughts and ideas clearly and concisely in a way that is understandable to almost anyone.''
The author, an economist at the Hoover Institution in California, credits Reagan with setting priorities, delegating authority, and making decisions ``promptly and decisively.'' He describes him as a ``crafty'' political compromiser.
Reagan's best qualities, Anderson states, made it possible for him to rise to power and accomplish his economic and national-security goals. But, he adds, ``the same detached, almost regal manner of managing was, on its other side, a naive trust in aides that bordered on irresponsibility.
The same willingness to delegate that helped Reagan produce `Star Wars' and Reaganomics also brought him the Iran-Contra affair.''