Anyone wishing to know where the power lies and what is going on in the capital of the greatest power on earth, Washington, should do an easy exercise. First, take the text of what President Reagan said to Time magazine's Hugh Sidey over the telephone from the White House on the Wednesday before setting out for Thanksgiving in California. Then look at what he did six days later on his return to Washington after talking to his principal advisers, including congressional leaders from the President's Republican Party.
Before he went to California, everything that has gone wrong for him of late was a result of ``a great irresponsibility on the part of the press'' and it was going to be easily cured. ``I've appointed a little group of my own to look into this to see if we can improve the procedures in the NSC,'' the President said, referring to his National Security Council.
But six days later he announced that he had agreed to the appointment of an independent counsel by a federal court that will conduct ``a thorough review of all aspects of this matter,'' meaning the sale of guns to Iran and the diversion of funds from that sale to the Nicaraguan rebels known as contras.
Also, he requested a separate investigation to be conducted by Congress.
In other words, the Reagan who faced the leaders of his party on returning from California has agreed to allow, and to cooperate with, at least three separate investigations into the affair: the three-man investigation headed by former Sen. John Tower that Reagan appointed himself, the inquiry of the independent counsel, and whatever probe Congress decides to undertake.
This, in turn, has two meanings. First, it means that there will be a long, continuing news story coming from the investigations which could last well into next year, with a continuing influence on the conduct of the government.
Second, it means that a group of persons not yet fully coalesced or identifiable has taken over the decision process in Washington and will be the source of ultimate decision, presumably through the end of the Reagan presidency.
The reason for Mr. Reagan's capitulation on his return to Washington is obvious. The leaders of his political party remember vividly the Watergate affair and what it did to another Republican president, Richard Nixon. They learned a lesson from that experience. They learned that the politically fatal thing to do is to attempt to cover up something that a president might like to cover up.
So we are now at the stage where the leaders of the Republican Party have, for the sake of the party, imposed on President Reagan the fullest possible disclosure of all facets of the affair.
Foreign offices around the world take note: This situation has a number of subordinate meanings for other countries. There can be no more sale of United States guns to Iran. There will be a decline in US support for the contras. Congress will probably allow the $100 million aid voted in the current budget to be spent for the contras, but it is highly unlikely that the next Congress, which opens early next month and which will be in Democratic hands, will ever vote another substantial appropriation for guns for contras.
An interesting question is what effect the changes in Washington will have on US relations with the Soviets.
What we are really talking about is what jobs the new, informal leadership in Washington will give Mr. Reagan to do during the remaining two years of his titular presidency.
They may well decide to let him try for an arms control agreement with the Soviets. This would keep him busy. It would keep him in the news doing what most Washingtonians regard as being a ``good'' thing, i.e., trying to improve or ease US relations with the Soviets. He might become enthusiastic about the job. He might be allowed to sweeten the package that is being sorted out from the crash landing at October's superpower summit in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Then, of course, we come to the question of whether the Soviets will think it worth their while to do any more negotiating with a man whose presidency is so obviously in a twilight phase.
A reasonable guess is that the Soviets will make no decision until they see whether George Shultz is to remain at the State Department for the balance of the Reagan term.
Mr. Shultz's future is one of those matters that will be decided in the general process of remaking the new White House leadership. At this writing, that process has reached the stage only of appointing a professional career diplomat, Frank Carlucci, to the position of chief foreign policy assistant to the President.
The next question is the identity of the new White House chief of staff. That there will be a new one is inevitable. All the current White House troubles began after Donald Regan took over the chief of staff role. The Republican Party leadership is going to insist on having a new person of their collective choosing in that post.
Those working on the damage control process have of course thought of the possibility of Mr. Reagan resigning before the end of his term. But the idea is premature right now. Before any of the party leaders think about that one seriously, they will want to know how Vice-President George Bush's reputation survives the investigations that are now getting under way.