Offhand I cannot remember a politically loaded incident being as mishandled as the Reagan White House's encounter with Barbara Honegger. Miss Honegger is a lawyer and was a loyal Republican. She took a job in the Department of Justice to locate and identify federal laws and regulations which discriminate against women. She resigned that job the other day calling the Reagan program against discrimination a ''sham.''
How does a sophisticated White House publicity operation handle a problem like that one?
Answer: Handle it almost any way except the way it was done.
First, they belittled Miss Honegger, and then the job. They tried to make a joke of it all by saying she had been last seen in a bunny suit at the White House egg rolling last Easter. Well, that was not Miss Honegger in the bunny suit. It was Mrs. Edwin Meese.
Then, they called her a ''low-level Munchkin.''
''Low level'' means, or certainly can be taken as meaning, that her job was of negligible importance. But for a White House official to grade as ''low level'' the job of identifying federal laws and regulations which discriminate against women is to ignore the feelings of a lot of women, many of whom are burning to get to the voting booth next year.
A veteran White House watcher of my acquaintance called the White House performance in the affair a marvel of skill in converting a small liability into a political disaster.
The Gallup poll of Aug. 11 had just been out showing President Reagan with an enlarged gender gap at 17 percent. That means that in Mr. Gallup's latest sampling Mr. Reagan's approval rating among women was 17 percent below his rating among men. His average gender gap since taking office had been 9 percent. It took an additional 5-point tumble during July.
Could the Reagan White House have picked a more inappropriate time for a performance which bespeaks insensitivity to the interests of women?
And is this just an isolated instance of blundering which will soon be forgotten? Or is the gender gap which it feeds symptomatic of a dawning public doubt about the competence of the Reagan administration to deal with the national problem of tomorrow?
Certainly the march of a quarter of a million or more blacks to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Sunday was evidence that the black community, like women, feel that Mr. Reagan is insensitive to their yearnings and problems.
Mr. Reagan devoted the month of August to a series of attempts to cultivate the Hispanic community, but is he giving them what they really value? His military intervention in Central America is presumably popular with Cuban and Nicaraguan emigres, but upper-class Cuban and Nicaraguan emigres are only a minority of the entire Hispanic community in the US, most of whom come from Puerto Rico or Mexico.
I am unable to find any clear evidence of how most Hispanics view the military intervention in Central America. But the attitude of the American people generally is loud and clear.
The Aug. 21 Gallup poll report shows nearly 3 to 1 (69 percent vs. 21 percent) oppose sending US advisers into combat areas. And a majority (55 percent vs. 35 percent) oppose even giving military assistance in Central America.
I have been assuming until now that the performance of the American economy would be the decisive element in the 1984 American political pattern. I have assumed that, if the economy continues to prosper through next August, Mr. Reagan would almost certainly be the next President of the US.
But now I begin to question that assumption. The economy may well continue to prosper, although that can depend on what happens to interest rates. But if it continues to be satisfactory, does Mr. Reagan seem to offer what people will be thinking about by next summer?
He has so far brought down inflation from dangerous to acceptable levels. He has restrained the expansion of welfare spending. And he has cut taxes. All of these were, in my own opinion, desirable for the national health. But having done these - where do we go now? What does he have to offer beyond these achievements?
He seems to be offering more foreign intervention and more expensive guns to a people more interested in new housing at tolerable interest rates. He served yesterday's needs. Does he understand tomorrow's needs? A lot of women - and others - begin to doubt.