White House pins hopes on speech
Washington — When President Reagan delivers his speech tonight, don't expect a cascade of apologies over the Iran-contra affair. Sources in the White House say the President will admit mistakes were made, but they insist that the focus in the Oval Office, and in tonight's speech, is on the future. The President refused to comment during the three months of congressional hearings on the Iran-contra affair, promising to give his version and his opinion of the events after the hearings ended.
(Foreign-policy tug of war between Congress and White House will continue, Page 6.)
A senior administration official warned against expecting ``too apologetic'' a speech. Sources within the White House have already stated that the President feels it was wrong for the National Security Council staff to pursue the diversion plan without seeking his authorization. Mr. Reagan has been quoted as saying he would not have approved the plan had he known.
With the President's early statements on his involvement in the Iran-contra affair largely substantiated, the White House aides consider the whole affair behind them. Staff members hope tonight's speech will serve to turn the public's attention toward what they say are more important issues facing the nation, such as the economy and arms control. Aides hope this will lay the groundwork for a new issues agenda to be taken up by the President when he returns next month from a vacation in California. He leaves tomorrow.
``The President feels it is appropriate for him to make some comment on the process to date,'' says White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, ``and also to give the American people a report on where he is going the next 16 months.''
Everett Carll Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, does not think the speech is critical to the administration's recovery. ``I wouldn't want to describe the situation as a make or break speech,'' he says. He adds that polling data show Reagan's approval rating at about the same point it was in the spring of 1984.
``In terms of his overall public standing, it is not at all clear that things would be that much different if he had not gone through this,'' Mr. Ladd says. He feels it would be ``hard to make the case the President has been seriously affected by the whole affair.''
White House sources say the President will deal with Iran-contra early in the speech, and then will focus on his agenda for the rest of his administration. He is expected to discuss the Central American peace plan, arms control, support for the Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, and some discussion of the budget and foreign trade.
The White House is prepared for the press to concentrate on whatever summary statements the President makes on the Iran-contra issue, aides say. ``Try as [the press] did to replay the Watergate scenario, this was no parallel,'' a senior administration official says. ``This was not a Watergate proceeding. We have not been paralyzed.'' He cited recent action on the budget, AIDS, and new research in superconductivity as demonstrations of administration activity.
Another aide echoes the comments about the sense of activity in the White House. ``No one outside of the [White House] general counsel's office is even talking about it. I've never been so busy in my life,'' he says. ``We are moving on.''
One ongoing activity is the White House effort to head off attempts by Congress to tighten reporting requirements on United States covert operations. Reagan has promised to inform Congress of covert actions within 48 hours under all but the ``most exceptional circumstances,'' in a letter to the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Under Reagan's undertakings, any ``findings'' made by the President must be made available to all members of the National Security Council. Many members of Congress remain skeptical and would prefer to see a legislative remedy.
White House spokesman Fitzwater says he doesn't ``anticipate any attacks on Congress'' in tonight's speech. The President has reportedly agreed not to make public statements against Congress on the contra issue as a part of his bipartisan peace plan unveiled last week.
Keeping a close eye on public and private polls, the White House is confident the President can continue to regain approval points lost over the last six to seven months. According to some surveys, Reagan's approval rating is improving and public support for the contras remains much higher than before Lt. Col. Oliver North's congressional testimony.
``You have to bear in mind the President was at a historic high when the first news broke in November ,'' a White House official says. If he only recovers half of what he lost, he will still be at the highest level for any President in the 20th century,'' the official says.