President Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl personally and emphatically reaffirmed Thursday their controversial decision to visit a German military cemetery.
But the sensitivity of U.S. officials to the public furor was demonstrated when two of them abruptly broke off news conferences while being questioned about the Reagan-Kohl conversation.
Richard R. Burt, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, who is slated to be nominated soon as ambassador to West Germany, angrily stalked out of a briefing for reporters when some of them expressed puzzlement at a quote he had attributed to Kohl. A West German spokesman later said that Burt had quoted Kohl inaccurately.
Three hours later, Secretary of State George P. Shultz became upset and hurriedly walked out of a press conference when a reporter suggested that he was not responding directly to a question about an apparent Reagan-Kohl discussion of "collective guilt."
"People are getting pretty touchy," said a White House official, speaking on condition that he not be identified.
A Different Tack
As his aides struggled to control the political and public relations damage of the controversy--"We've decided to confront this (cemetery) issue head-on," one said--Reagan publicly took a slightly different tack Thursday: "There aren't any problems or controversies," he insisted to reporters when asked whether he had discussed the cemetery controversy with Kohl.
Piecing together the 40-minute Reagan-Kohl conversation from various official sources--Burt, Shultz and White House spokesman Larry Speakes--the chancellor and the President commiserated with each other during their first face-to-face meeting since the international furor erupted.
But the two leaders earnestly agreed that they had made the right decision to visit the military cemetery at Bitburg, site of the graves of about 3,000 German World War I and II soldiers, including 49 members of Adolf Hitler's elite Waffen SS.
On Sunday, Reagan and Kohl plan to jointly lay a wreath at the rural cemetery, near a key U.S. Air Force base about 60 miles south and west of here.
According to Burt, Kohl told Reagan that all West Germans understand what Reagan has "endured" while being publicly denounced by Holocaust survivors, Jewish organizations, American veterans and members of Congress. But Kohl emphasized, Burt continued, that the President's decision has "sent a powerful signal to the German people." The chancellor reportedly praised the President for "looking far into the future of the U.S.-German relationship."
Swimming Against the Tide
"The chancellor, as a politician, understood that it was difficult to swim against the political tide," Burt said, adding, in response to a reporter's question, that he was only paraphrasing Kohl.
Burt, 38, a former New York Times reporter, clearly was becoming increasingly upset at what he regarded as snickering by some members of the news media and excessive questioning by others.
One reporter initially touched a raw nerve by pointing out that Burt had inadvertently referred to Arthur F. Burns as if he were the former U.S. ambassador to West Germany. Burns, who still holds the post, is expected to be replaced by Burt sometime this summer. "You know what I mean," Burt said.
'Must Never Forget'
Only 10 minutes into what had been scheduled as a 30-minute briefing, Burt suddenly turned and left with a brusque "goodby" after reporters questioned wording that he had attributed to Kohl. Burt reported that "the chancellor said we must never forget and we can never forgive."
U.S. reporters found the quote puzzling because they are accustomed to hearing such words from Jewish leaders, particularly survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, not from German officials.
Peter Boenisch, Kohl's spokesman, later said of Burt, "I think he shortened the chancellor's words to a point where they were no longer correct."
Reuters news agency quoted a West German spokesman, whom it did not identify, as saying that Kohl had actually told Reagan, "We have no right to demand that people forgive and forget." The spokesman said Burt "has turned West German policy on its head."
Burt left the briefing without reporting Reagan's side of the conversation. But he earlier had relayed what Reagan told West German President Richard von Weizsaecker.
Conflicts With Report
"The (U.S.) President said that he had never wavered in his decision" to visit the Bitburg cemetery, Burt said. This, however, placed Reagan in conflict with the reports of anonymous White House aides last Friday that the President had attempted by telephone to coax Kohl into scrubbing the cemetery visit.
More confusion was created Thursday about the Reagan-Kohl meeting when West German spokesman Boenisch reported that Reagan had told Kohl he regretted recent American expressions that all Germans shared "collective guilt" for Nazi atrocities.
Speakes disputed this and said Reagan merely was mentioning that the United States formally had rejected the notion of collective guilt during the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
Shultz later told reporters, "I don't think that in the discussion of the Bitburg visit there has been an expression of collective guilt on the part of Americans."
Shultz, who did not attend the Reagan-Kohl meeting, was asked which leader had talked about "never forgetting or forgiving" and was requested to explain the comment. When he did not seem to be responding directly to the question--perhaps because he did not understand it--a reporter attempted to interrupt him.
'On the Wrong Track'
"If I could finish, if you don't mind," Shultz said testily. "All right," the reporter said, "but you are going off on the wrong track."
At that, Shultz's face turned red and he snapped, "Any other questions?" He gave a four-word answer to one, quickly said "Thank you" and walked out--17 minutes after he had arrived for a news conference that had been expected to last at least half an hour.
The day ended with Burt declining to show up for an expected briefing for reporters on Reagan's meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. U.S. reporters were advised by a White House spokesman to get their information from the British government.