Living by the symbol

THE Reagan administration could have known that once it allowed itself to be enticed by the siren of symbolism, of message-sending for the sake of foreign and domestic audiences, its trip to Bonn next month could be headed for trouble. If it had stuck to the business at hand at Bonn -- ostensibly a summit meeting of the Western economic powers, adding possibly a NATO-related session -- its current exercise in damage control would have been unnecessary. Some dignified acknowledgment by President Reagan of the Allied victory of 1945 could also have been made within such a setting. So could an emphasis on reconciliation with the German people after 40 years.

But when the administration decided to add the Bitburg cemetery near Luxembourg to the itinerary, trouble was needlessly set in motion. Not only did Bitburg not contain American as well as German war dead, as President Reagan had claimed, but it included fallen members of Hitler's SS guard. President Reagan's attempt to put the best face on the decision -- ``Maybe we should observe this day as the day when, 40 years ago, peace began'' -- could not stanch the insistence that the war's end be remembered more completely for its full human and historical context. Calls for the President to visit a concentration camp while in West Germany -- which White House envoys are now hastily attempting to arrange -- should have been anticipated at the outset. As it is, if the President does cancel his Bitburg cemetery visit, which may be the solution, or ``balances'' it with an inspection of a concentration camp site, the impression of response to duress threatens to detract from his intended positive purpose.

Granted, there is intense pressure on any president from every quarter, domestic and foreign, to do something symbolic when he travels. This pressure is particularly aggravated with the Reagan administration, which has come to think so heavily in terms of symbolic staging, even though Reagan's last election is behind him. Symbolic events, keyed to television reporting, are seen as crucial to enhancing presidential power and for pulling Congress in the direction the President wants to go.

In this case, the administration may have wanted to continue its series of messages to American veterans, to bolster its commitment to defense spending and military strength at home, as well as to secure relations with the Kohl government.

The risks of living by the symbol are those we see evidenced in the Bonn journey. The primary business of the trip, forging consensus on Western economic and trade matters, is obscured by controversy. Besides the West Germans, the French are also distressed by the lack of American sensitivity to unintended impressions. The American President's visit to Strasbourg, where he will be received by the mayor, has offended President Mitterrand, for the very elementary reason that the Strasbourg mayor is an arch opponent of Mr. Mitterrand.

Ambassadors who have served under other presidents almost universally complain of how presidential advance teams can ride roughshod over local sensitivities. Indeed, to blame ``bad staff work'' is a diplomatic device for an administration to put an itinerary brouhaha behind it.

There are better ways for the administration to respond. The first is to reaffirm the primary purpose of the visit, its working itinerary, and to establish firmly the context for any side visits. Beyond this, it can acknowledge that there need be no sense of condemnation in remembering the tragic depths that war can drag mankind into.

If anything, to visit a concentration camp in the company of a president's West German hosts -- as Chancellor Kohl will do with West German Jewish leaders at the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen this Sunday -- can be an affirmation that the future of better conduct, of repentance and forgiveness and the healing of enmity, is already under way. It is in the simple honesty with which a president faces this opportunity, not in avoiding its full historical context, which includes the Holocaust, or wanting to deal only with the ``good'' side of war, that Mr. Reagan can turn to account what has so far been an embarrassment.

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