At the urging of her hospitalized husband, First Lady Nancy Reagan went forward Wednesday with a previously planned visit to the aircraft carrier America, remarking aboard ship that she planned to encourage the ailing President "to take it easier."
As White House aides continued to insist that President Reagan is "champing at the bit" after Saturday's surgical removal of a cancerous tumor from his colon, Mrs. Reagan tempered talk of her husband returning to work soon.
"I think he should be treated as any other patient," she declared on the America's steamy flight deck while the ship cruised off the coast of Delaware. "He should go through a recuperation period. I visited some of the children there (in Bethesda Naval Medical Center), and they were being given time to recuperate. He should be allowed to do that."
'Stiff Upper Lip'
Aides have described Mrs. Reagan as "drained" but "keeping a stiff upper lip in front of him." When asked Wednesday how she and the President were feeling, she replied: "The President's fine. I'm fine. Everything will be fine. He told me I should keep my schedule. The only thing I reneged on (regarding the visit to the America) was staying overnight."
During her visit to attend a briefing on the Navy's stepped-up drug abuse program, Mrs. Reagan talked to reporters for the first time since her husband was diagnosed Monday as having cancer.
Referring to the detailed coverage her husband's cancer has received, she said: "I hope it's been helpful to other families. I understand doctors are getting more calls on this kind of thing, that people had been afraid to talk about it and that people are getting checkups."
Asked if she had a message for families who might be experiencing problems similar to hers, she replied quickly: "Go for early checkups."
Mrs. Reagan described the President's mood as "very upbeat. He cannot wait to get home."
She also expressed dismay over second-guessing by those who have questioned why Reagan was not given a complete intestinal exam when the first polyp was discovered in May, 1984, a procedure that might have discovered the cancerous tumor sooner.
Earlier, on the ship's hangar deck, Mrs. Reagan was given a giant get-well card to pass along to her husband. Drawn by sailor Todd A. Soper of St. Petersburg, Fla., the front showed Mrs. Reagan on the carrier with the words: "From America's Best to America's Best." Inside, it said: "Get Well, Mr. President, From the Crew of the USS America." It was signed by more than 4,500 sailors, most of the ship's crew.
"If that doesn't get him well, nothing will," said Mrs. Reagan. She briefly choked back tears when delivering a message from her husband to the sailors, halting at the phrase: " 'Nancy, will you tell them how proud I am of them?' "
Presents for Sailors
She donned a USS America flight jacket and baseball-style cap as she presented six sailors with birthday presents from their families and gave them kisses. The America's chorus serenaded her with "Ain't She Sweet," prompting her to reply: "I think you're all sweet too."
She told officers: "It (the visit) comes at the right time for me. This is great therapy."
Another sailor, Scott Craig of Anaheim Hills, Calif., called her visit "great" and said the sailors have been sprucing up the ship and their uniforms for her.
Despite the President's illness, Craig said, "I kind of felt like she would come, because it means so much to us."