President Reagan ended his 10-day European tour Friday the way he began it--expressing optimism while trying to control political damage and put the best face on a bad situation.
“We are returning home, mission accomplished,” he declared at a final press conference held against a background of blue skies in Lisbon’s 18th-Century Palace of Quelez.
The President ticked off a list of his trip’s “lasting achievements” in opening the 20-minute press conference, then spent the rest of the time insisting he had not capitulated in the budget fight back home and defending his Nicaragua trade embargo and other policies that enveloped the trip in controversies all the way from Bonn to Lisbon.
Because reaction to his Bitburg cemetery visit and to his Nicaragua and “Star Wars” policies overshadowed other issues throughout the tour, this was by far the least rewarding and most controversial trip of the Reagan presidency. And it raised serious questions about the effectiveness of his reshuffledWhite House staff and doubts about his own capabilities for strong leadership in the second term.
But Reagan, in his usual buoyant style, spoke of the trip as though it had been the equal of his highly successful journeys last year to China and to Europe, where he participated in D-Day anniversary ceremonies at Normandy, visited his forebears’ home town in Ireland, and co-starred with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the London economic summit.
“It has been a long, historic and thoroughly worthwhile trip,” Reagan declared in Lisbon. When he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington on Friday afternoon, he once again pronounced it a “successful trip.”
Reagan said that “issues of major significance were dealt with openly, vigorously and in depth.”
Standing nearby, poker-faced, were White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and other presidential aides who had been trying to convince reporters that the trip had been a success and that the Administration had won a significant victory in the budget battle.
In listing the trip’s achievements, Reagan cited strengthened U.S.-West German ties; some progress in reaching agreement on the new round of global trade talks; establishment in his speech to the European Parliament of “a sensible framework” for improved Soviet relations; stronger relations with Spain and Portugal, and the economic summit’s endorsement of U.S. arms control efforts at Geneva.
But there were setbacks, too. Because of the heavy criticism of his appearance at the Bitburg cemetery where 49 Nazi Waffen SS troopers are buried, Reagan paid a heavy political price for solidifying the ties with West Germany. He also failed in his main economic goal of securing agreement on a starting date for a new round of trade talks. His policies on Nicaragua drew strong opposition in Spain and Portugal, as well as in France and West Germany. And, in Madrid, he was pressed for an early beginning of talks to reduce the U.S. military presence in Spain.
A ‘War Menace’
And, finally, his speech to the European Parliament at Strasbourg, France, contained so much anti-Soviet rhetoric that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev dismissed his talk of improved relations and branded his policies a “war menace.”
Bitburg and the budget fight had caused severe political headaches for the President even before he left Washington on April 30. He found little if any relief during the trip.
The President tried to limit the political damage of visiting the Bitburg cemetery by also arranging a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. But after his Bitburg visit, Jewish leaders and Israeli officials said Reagan would never be forgiven for laying a wreath at the cemetery.
Some of the President’s own political advisers called the cemetery visit one of the greatest political mistakes of his career and expressed concern that it would not only weaken him but might hurt other Republicans in the 1986 and 1988 elections.
With Republicans as well as Democrats on Capitol Hill hacking away at his defense spending proposals, Reagan used his rare free moments during his heavily scheduled trip to lobby senators by telephone.
Bush’s Deciding Vote
But the best he could come up with--on a razor-thin 50-49 Senate vote with Vice President George Bush casting the deciding vote--was a one-year freeze on defense spending, something the President earlier had said would be an “irresponsible act,” and a cap on Social Security and other cost-of-living adjustments, something he had specifically pledged he would never do.
Not only Reagan’s image but that of his new staff took a beating on the trip.
In both the planning and the execution of the tour, it became clear that Chief of Staff Regan lacked the political skills for discerning potential trouble, reading nuances, and packaging the President’s image or negotiating compromises that his predecessor, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, exhibited in the first term.
Staff foul-ups ranged from booking the President into the Bitburg cemetery visit to neglecting to set up a backup TelePrompTer at the European Parliament. The malfunctioning TelePrompTer embarrassed the President and made him get off to a shaky start on what originally had been billed as the major address of the trip.
The 44-minute speech also was criticized by some of the White House staffers as too long and dry, especially for an address that was being carried live by American TV networks.
White House officials did manage to take some of the spotlight from Bitburg by the way they arranged both the cemetery visit and another wreath-laying ceremony earlier at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Accompanied by his wife, Nancy, Reagan spent almost an hour at Bergen-Belsen. TV cameras followed them as they made a solemn tour past photographic displays of Holocaust horrors; the President was also pictured as he laid a wreath at the foot of the concentration camp’s memorial.
For the Bitburg visit, the White House first tried to recruit survivors of the Holocaust to accompany the President to the cemetery. When that proved unsuccessful, they invited 90-year-old retired Army Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, a World War II hero, to share the spotlight with Reagan; Ridgway accepted.
The Bitburg visit, which lasted only eight minutes, was arranged so that Reagan and Ridgway were side by side throughout the ceremony, providing camera shots of the elderly general endorsing the President’s gesture of reconciliation with a World War II enemy.
As in all Reagan trips, the White House advance team emphasized an almost continual series of “photo opportunities.”
Five weeks before the trip began, the advance team went to Europe and mapped out virtually every step the President would take in public.
But the “photo op” proved to be a two-edged sword. The advance team was forced into some fast remapping once word got out that SS graves were at Bitburg. TV cameramen and news photographers wound up being confined to positions that made it extremely difficult for them to take pictures of Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl together at Bitburg.
The Bergen-Belsen stop was was scheduled several hours before Bitburg--in time for colored photographs of a somber Reagan laying a wreath at the foot of the concentration camp’s memorial to appear on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines.
Damage control would not have occupied so much time if Reagan’s itinerary had been better researched in the first place, some officials concede. Part of the problem this time stemmed from the fact that the members of the new White House staff Reagan has assembled for his second term are as unfamiliar with his strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, as they are inexperienced in policy.
Letting Down His Boss
The staffer most familiar with Reagan, outgoing Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver, admitted letting down his boss by planning the Bitburg ceremony without learning of the SS graves.
The consensus of other White House advisers, who have always deferred to Deaver on questions of Reagan’s scheduling and public relations, is that the long-time aide had his mind on his own future and not enough on the President’s trip.
Nevertheless, Deaver not only was forgiven but was lavishly praised by Reagan as he left the White House staff at the end of the trip to form his own consulting firm after 19 years of nearly continuous service to both Reagans.
“I consider Mike’s leaving in the nature of an amputation, and it is me that is suffering the amputation,” Reagan volunteered at the end of his Lisbon press conference.
“I have never found fault with anything that he’s doing, with his loyalty, with his friendship, and with the common sense that he has always used,” the President said. “And that extends to the arrangements for this trip.”
The only Administration official to end the trip with his reputation enhanced was Robert C. McFarlane, the President’s national security adviser, who has emerged as the most influential person to hold that crucial post under Reagan.
Had it not been for McFarlane, Reagan’s Strasbourg speech would have had an even harsher anti-Soviet tone. In the final text, McFarlane triumphed over Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative White House communications director, who had fought for a much tougher line.
The McFarlane-Buchanan struggle and Buchanan’s absence from the trip--a virtually unprecedented situation for a communications director who, among other things, heads up the speechwriting team--were further evidence of second term staff problems at the White House.
Reagan’s friends and foes alike always have considered him a lucky politician with the greatest sense of timing they have ever encountered. On this trip, however, his luck ran out and his timing went awry.