AUGUSTS have not been easy months for the Reagan administration. When the President takes his vacation, the question of who is in charge crops up, as does the quality of his or her judgment. On Aug. 19, 1981, for example, there was the flap over the shooting down of a Libyan aircraft over the Mediterranean, when the President was not awakened and told the news. The following August, Wall Street was jittery as the country labored to come out of the recession, and the White House again felt under attack. The administration came to see that it had to keep up some kind of August news offensive to defend against a seasonal slump when its heavy hitter, the President himself, took time off.
Even with this explanation, this August's offensive has been a patchy affair, with factionalism among aides showing the deep split between conservative and moderate views across the board, and with the conservatives taking the opportunity to push their ideas from within the shadow of the presidential seal.
On foreign topics, the administration's chief Cabinet spokesman, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, has been taking a break himself higher up the California coast in Palo Alto. The President's national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, has done most of the talking on South Africa and the Soviet Union.
We've been told by White House ``aides'' that the White House sees no prospect of resolving differences with the Nicaragua government as long as the Sandinistas remain in power. We read that US-Cuban ties have again cooled.
The Soviet Union will have to clean up its act on arms, including defensive systems and chemical weapons, as well as human-rights violations and intrusions into regions not its own, we are told -- a rhetorical brushback at the same moment the administration was announcing a meeting in Washington between the new Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, and President Reagan on Sept. 27.
A year ago, going into the national election, when the White House emphasis was on its willingness to talk with the Soviet leadership, the conference with Mr. Shevardnadze would have been given greater stress.
On South Africa, again it is Mr. McFarlane giving the main White House response -- criticizing Bishop Desmond Tutu for not joining in a perfunctory meeting of churchmen with President Pieter W. Botha.
This was perhaps intended as a show of administration evenhandedness in South Africa. But when taken with the administration's recent stirrings to dump federal fair hiring goals for blacks, women, and Hispanics in the United States, it suggests a consistent insensitivity to the aspirations of anyone but white, dominant-culture males. This is causing a furor within the GOP, as moderates see the party's efforts to create a mainstream political movement, not to mention their convictions about fairness and opportunity, frustrated by the efforts of officials and aides asserting positions they make out to be the President's.
Politically related is the administration's August effort to woo working-class whites and Southern white conservatives with pronouncements on religion in the schools, the Supreme Court, and school vouchers.
It is admittedly difficult to respond to a developing story, like South African unrest, when an administration -- and all of Washington -- is operating at less than half strength.
But the pattern this August suggests the White House apparatus has decided to maintain the President's hard-line positions intact through this vacation period. And it reflects a staff emphasis that may be even more ideologically adventurous than the President's.