With the frustrating drama in Beirut dragging on, President Reagan is increasingly in danger of being drawn into a web of uncontrollable events like the one that trapped his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, and ultimately destroyed his presidency.
Ever since the passengers on TWA's ill-fated Flight 847 were transformed from hijack victims into hostages, Reagan and his aides have been determined to maintain a brisk atmosphere of business as usual and avoid following in the footsteps of the luckless Carter. The former President's conspicuous concentration on the Iranian hostage crisis in the end made him the most notable hostage of all.
"It was obvious from the beginning we were not going to let a group of hijackers feel like they have the President of the United States jumping through hoops," said White House spokesman Larry Speakes. And Reagan, while expressing repeated concern and determination about the Beirut situation, has tried his best to keep it from dominating the national consciousness and thus controlling his own course of action.
Yet as the crisis has worn on and new outbursts of violence have claimed innocent lives in El Salvador and West Germany, the pressure of uncontrollable events--and the public's own reaction--have seemed to repeatedly override the pragmatic intentions of White House tacticians.
For example, Reagan--addressing a Texas Lions Club convention Friday--clung to his business-as-usual strategy by devoting most of his speech to Ethiopian famine and to his tax reform package--including three ad-libbed jokes on the latter. But he also penciled brief inserts into the prepared text to denounce terrorists as "uncivilized barbarians" and to warn that America's wrath, once kindled, "burns like a consuming flame."
Furthermore, Reagan, whose staff earlier in the week tried unsuccessfully to shield him from such an encounter, rearranged his schedule in Dallas to meet with family members of hostages.
What repeatedly threw Reagan and his aides off course were two pieces of unmanageable reality:
--In a situation as dangerous and as fraught with human drama as the one in Beirut, any President's ability to shape the public's response is far more limited than when some prosaic piece of domestic policy is involved.
--Reagan's efforts to restrain the public's response have collided with the nation's still-fresh recollections of the Iranian hostage crisis. From the yellow streamers waved by the crowds watching a presidential motorcade in Indiana on Wednesday to the non-stop television coverage from the Middle East, reactions to this hostage episode seem conditioned by the traumatic memories of the last one.
And the President is being forced to shape his own reactions accordingly.
No one, not even old Carter hands, questions the wisdom of the President's efforts to keep the plight of the hostages from dominating the national agenda.
"It's a good idea," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser. But, Brzezinski added, "As a matter of practicality, it's very hard to do. You can't control the public mood."
Indeed, some analysts suggested that unless the American hostages are released fairly soon, this bout of terrorism could cast a pall over the Reagan Administration's bright hopes for the future. The President's continued inability to take control over the hostages' fate may erode the public perception of him as a strong leader. And the riveting nature of the Beirut crisis undercuts Reagan's celebrated ability to dominate the national debate on a range of foreign and domestic issues.
"It's hard to be a great communicator when you have only bad news to communicate," said political scientist Austin Ranney, author of "Channels of Power," a study of media influence on politics.
The danger of having to deal with a disenchanted citizenry would be a problem for any President under these circumstances. But in Reagan's case, some contend, the problem would have particularly serious potential because one of his strengths has been his ability to portray himself, unlike Carter, as in command of events.
"At this stage of the situation we're not seeing the master of destiny in the White House," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart.
"Reagan has learned from the Carter experience not to bring all of the trauma into the White House," said Stephen Hess, a White House aide to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "As long as he's in Indiana talking about tax reform, Sam Donaldson (ABC News White House correspondent) will have to be in Indiana, too."
Yet as the President plumped in Indiana for his tax program, some in the crowds greeted him waving yellow ribbons in remembrance of the hostages--a form of demonstration that took months to evolve during the Iran crisis but which was recalled and adopted almost instantly after the Beirut hijacking.
"Just as there is a Vietnam syndrome, there seems to be a Tehran syndrome," Hess said.
"It wasn't that long ago," Ranney said of the embassy siege, "and it's still an open wound."
Clearly, the threat posed to the hostages and the questions raised about the U.S. ability to protect its interests abroad are too grave to be ignored by the press and the public who have learned, however unreasonably, to look to the White House for ready solutions to almost any problem.
"The news media is the news media," grumbled Speakes at one point this week.
In Better Position?
Despite the troublesome legacy from Carter's hostage crisis, for the present at least, Reagan may have positioned himself to withstand the pressures of such a confrontation with terrorists better than his predecessor did.
"I can see Reagan saying, 'We're working on this thing so let's cool it until things work out,' " Hess said. "Carter couldn't have said that because he didn't have the reservoir of good will that Reagan has. This gives him some breathing room."
"It's not immobilizing," contended Speakes of the situation in Beirut. "I don't see it spilling over into things that are purely domestic."
And indeed, results from the first post-hijacking opinion polls suggested that Reagan, like other chief executives before him, was drawing support from the public's instinct to rally around flag and President in the face of any foreign threat.
However, as Carter can testify, this phenomenon may not persist indefinitely. If history is any guide, time could become as formidable an adversary for the President as the hostage's captors. "The longer this thing goes on, the tougher it will become for Reagan," Ranney predicted.
Prolonged tension from Beirut could erode the public's patience, as well as the President's store of good will, and force problems to the forefront. One potential difficulty for Reagan, one of his former campaign aides suggested, is that "people will remember that the President has always talked so tough about terrorists, and they'll begin to wonder why there's no action."
Another negative factor, in the view of pollster Hart, is that the hostage situation coincides with evidence of growing public resentment over heavy spending for defense.
"We have been spending all this money, supposedly to gain international respect, and yet we can't do anything about the hostages," is the way the public would come to think, Hart said.
On strictly domestic issues, the playing out of the hostage crisis appears to have come at a particularly unfortunate time from Reagan's point of view--just as he is in the midst of a major effort to promote tax reform as the centerpiece of his second term.
Certainly, no one would question Reagan's determination to keep his eye and the public's on his agenda, rather than on Beirut. Stumping in Dallas for tax simplification during his second road trip this week, he pledged "appropriate restraint" in dealing with terrorism.
As hard as it may be for the public to accept this counsel of patience, it may be even harder for the President--given his deep sense of indignation over the episode in Beirut--to practice what he preaches.
"He's had the same frustrations, following the bombing of the Beirut embassy and the bombing of the Marine barracks," Speakes said. "It's the inability to strike back."
Reagan blasts terrorists as "uncivilized barbarians." Page 10.