Lights on Regan

AS the President continues to recover, government officials and the news media are eyeing suspiciously any sign that anyone might be seeking to use this period as an opportunity to rise in power -- even to be presidential. Thus, we have this particularly heavy scrutiny of chief of staff Donald Regan, who, because of his position, serves as the main briefer of the President and also as the President's chief ramrod in getting things done.

Up to now, Mr. Regan is being credited, for the most part, with performing a most delicate role creditably.

As the Senate's Republican whip, Alan Simpson, puts it: ``I think Donald Regan is what we know Donald Regan is: confident, capable, a very forthright and forceful person. . . . He's rather brusque. But he will listen. . . . He's out front. He's accessible. And he'll lay it on the line -- no mincing around with him.''

This is the Donald Regan we all saw in action when he was a highly visible secretary of the Treasury. He's a master at tough banter. No one has ever been able to put him down with a quip. But he can take it, too.

And he does not hold grudges.

There are, however, a mounting number of reports -- or articles -- seeing the light of day here which would have you believe that Mr. Regan is, because of the President's disability, becoming something different: something approaching an assistant president, even, at times, elbowing out Vice-President George Bush and Mrs. Reagan. In short, that Mr. Regan may be exceeding his authority.

The allegation is not true. This is the same Donald Regan -- hardworking and assertive -- who is doing pretty much just what he has always been doing: keeping the President informed, fulfilling what the President wants him to do.

True, he's not sharing that role with anyone -- unlike James Baker, who was, for a long time, part of a troika of top presidential aides where prime influence sometimes went to Edwin Meese or Michael Deaver.

Much of the focus on Regan is what political analyst Richard Scammon calls ``press hype.'' ``The press loves to write about all these inner workings and maneuverings within the White House -- who's on first, who's on second. I think it's usually a lot of baloney. The only relevant thing is that the most important person over there -- and also the second, third, and fourth most important person over there -- is the President.''

As Mr. Scammon sees it, Mr. Reagan still is running his show and, therefore, there is no one under him, including Regan, who is not doing anything more than shine (and perform) in reflected presidential influence.

Actually, Regan has put together quite a White House team, led by communications director Patrick J. Buchanan, legislative liaison Max L. Friedersdorf, and presidential spokesman Larry Speakes.

Being the President's chief implementer has, during the hostage crisis and Mr. Reagan's surgery and the aftermath, called for a great deal more of Regan's personal involvement and for much more of his time. Thus, to ease his load, he has brought in a former Treasury aide, Dennis Thomas, who Senator Simpson describes this way: ``He's an easy guy to deal with. He's known to most of us over here. You talk to him, and he'll get back to you. And he is good at arranging things. He will diffuse the duties that

consume Regan.''

There are the usual stories of Regan's having differences with some of those around him. There is talk that Regan and national-security adviser Robert C. McFarlane don't always see eye to eye. Also, there are reports that Regan and the President's political assistant, Edward J. Rollins, aren't too compatible.

But as Bryce Harlow, that longtime adviser of Presidents, points out, an effective president needs to have people around him who have varying solutions and recommendations -- and who therefore may well have disagreements among themselves. There is no evidence that such squabbles within Donald Regan's realm have risen above what may be called ``acceptable.'' Indeed, even his critics are grudgingly conceding that he has put together a smooth-working and relatively harmonious operation.

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

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