The news media and Reagan's illness. Microscopic press coverage leads many in Washington to say: `Enough'

Sam Donaldson, White House correspondent for ABC-TV, expressed surprise. Why did President Reagan spend so little time talking to his doctors about his illness and operation? he asked. ``Most people . . . probably would want to spend more than five minutes asking questions about it. He doesn't seem to be curious,'' Mr. Donaldson observed at a White House news briefing.

Larry Speakes, the White House spokesman, replied: ``The President is basically a very solid, a very courageous, very optimistic individual. [He has] a solid, straightforward approach, you know, `Let's get about the business at hand,' . . . and that's exactly the way he approached this.''

``That's amazing,'' Donaldson said.

Donaldson's surprise was perhaps understandable. The American press has covered the President's illness and operation in excruciating detail. Photographs, drawings, and thousands of words have reviewed every aspect. A reader of the New York Times might know more about the illness than the President himself.

Some Washington officials, such as Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, think it's all too much. In fact, even the Reagan White House, which has been as open as any in history in discussing the President's physical problems, finally put a lid on information at midweek.

No, the hospital's pathology report on the President will not be released, the White House announced.

No, doctors will no longer be giving interviews on the President's condition, it was decided.

First Lady Nancy Reagan is among those who have been concerned that coverage has been overdone. The doctor-patient relationship that includes privacy does have some validity even for presidents, she let it be known.

Political scholars sympathize with such concerns. But as they look at American history, and at other countries, they say the current practice of heavy coverage does have some advantages.

Openness, says Princeton political scientist Fred I. Greenstein, is much to be preferred to the evasiveness practiced by other administrations.

The ``grand deception'' of Franklin D. Roosevelt, especially the decline in his physical health in 1944, was in sharp and unflattering contrast to Reagan's candor, Dr. Greenstein notes. Other presidents who kept secrets included John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Woodrow Wilson, and Grover Cleveland.

It was Dwight D. Eisenhower who moved toward full disclosure with such forthrightness that some Americans found the details distasteful. Although Kennedy, who immediately followed Eisenhower in office, and later Nixon, failed to admit their problems, others -- Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and now Reagan -- have followed the Eisenhower pattern.

This openness amazes some foreign observers. In the Soviet Union, health problems of leaders are not admitted until radio stations begin broadcasting funeral dirges. In some other countries, such as the Philippines and Japan, the health of its leaders sometimes is treated as a state secret.

What, then, is the problem with total candor?

Some coverage tends to be ``ghoulish,'' contends Senator Simpson. ``There's a doomsday quality there that seems to pervade the reporting of his operation.''

A Simpson aide, elaborating on the senator's criticism of the press and TV, says he worries that in Washington ``people tend to make high drama out of just about everything, especially things that concern the President.''

The senator's concern, the aide says, is that ``the scrutiny public officials are put under is so severe that no one can be put up to the test.'' The invasion of every aspect of an individual's privacy is making public service less attractive. Good people who might want to serve in public office are being driven away.

Meanwhile, at the White House, aides are trying to turn aside some overly personal inquiries about Mr. Reagan with humor. Is the President still in pain? asked one reporter.

``A little discomfort when he does his sit-ups,'' an aide quipped.

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