In light of the Iran-contra policy failure, many observers now wonder what went wrong, at least in the making of foreign policy, with White House management. Did Ronald Reagan abandon the special Cabinet structure he set up, or did his system fail him? When Mr. Reagan took the reins in 1981, he made a point of emphasizing ``Cabinet government.'' The President and his advisers were determined to avoid what they viewed as administrative weaknesses in some previous administrations. There would not be, they resolved, the concentration of power in the White House that had, some experts thought, isolated President Nixon. But on the other hand, the executive departments and agencies would not be allowed to function as independent and competing fiefdoms, which some observers say contributed to policy paralysis during the Carter years.
Under first-term White House chief of staff James Baker III, the Reagan administration created a small number of Cabinet-level councils, each concerned with a broad area of policy. Each council was made up of the heads of the relevant departments and agencies and had a staff provided by the White House. The objective was to ensure coordinated deliberation of all major policy issues before they went to the President.
While admitting that the Cabinet-council system has had its problems, senior administration officials insist that overall the system has performed well. In the case of the Iran-contra scandal, they assert, the blame for policy mishaps lay not with the process, but with the people that misused it.
``Had [better managers] been involved in the National Security Council,'' one senior administration official says, ``there never would have been an `Irangate.'''
White House officials label the Iran-contra failure an aberration and claim the President's policy apparatus, particularly on domestic issues, is still active and very much on track.
The Reagan administration began with five Cabinet councils, to act as ``subcommittees'' of the Cabinet, but the list soon grew to seven. The first-term structure may have looked good on paper, but it did not work well over time, some participants say. Issues tended to overlap into the jurisdiction of two or more councils, creating coordination problems. Cabinet officers, some of whom served on several councils, complained about the number of meetings and began to send aides to represent them.
In the view of many, the system began to create more problems than it solved. One official says it was ``too diffuse, with too much duplication,'' and it therefore was ``doomed to failure.''
When Donald Regan became the White House chief of staff at the beginning of Reagan's second term, Mr. Regan reorganized the system into three elements: the Domestic Policy Council headed by Attorney General Edwin Meese III, the Economic Policy Council headed by Treasury Secretary James Baker, and the National Security Council (NSC) headed by the national-security adviser. The President serves as the official chairman of the councils, but he attends council meetings only when issues are ripe for decision.
Most of the principal players say the new system is working quite well, at least on the domestic side. Several administration officials say the domestic councils, especially the Economic Policy Council, have been better managed than the NSC.
This is not to say the two domestic councils have not had their problems. When Regan became chief of staff he recruited Alfred Kingon to head the White House Cabinet Affairs office, which coordinates the work of the councils.
Mr. Kingon, according to senior administration officials and former White House staff aides, treated Cabinet members with ``a fair amount of contempt,'' and was ``very disorganized.'' Several officials commented on the contrast between Kingon and Nancy Risque, who succeeded Kingon after he was appointed US ambassador to the European Community.
As a result of Kingon's style, many Cabinet members started using ``a second channel'' to achieve their policy goals. One Cabinet-level official says, ``Cabinet officers each have their own way into the President. ... We don't have to go through the council system.''
Ms. Risque does not see efforts by Cabinet members to raise issues outside of the council system as a threat. But she and other administration officials still say the council system is the best way to resolve most policy issues among often competing interests within the executive branch.
``I view our job as honest brokers,'' Risque says. ``Our job is not to censure or to narrow the options; our job is to make sure that even if there is only one [dissenting] voice out there, [it must] be represented,'' she says.
Some White House staff aides say Risque has also alienated some Cabinet members with what they describe as a somewhat gruff style. ``I am tough,'' Risque admits, ``but I am also very straight.''
Energy Secretary John Herrington says he has nothing but praise for Risque, especially on her successful efforts at rebuilding the Cabinet-council structure. And senior official who sits on the Economic Policy Council praises Risque and current chief of staff Howard Baker Jr., crediting them with ``opening the system up'' after Regan's departure.
When asked whether the Iran-contra issue is a indication of a Cabinet system in disarray, Mr. Herrington answers with a flat ``no.'' ``It was an aberration,'' he says. ``The President is very much a process man. He likes to see the system work.''