In uncharacteristically bitter tones, President Reagan last week denounced the press for what he called “irresponsibility” in the Iranian arms scandal and labeled Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the National Security Council staffer he had just fired, “a national hero.”
“There is bitter bile in my throat these days,” Reagan said in an interview conducted Wednesday and published Sunday in Time magazine. “I’ve never seen the sharks circling like they now are with blood in the water.”
And in a separate interview, Vice President George Bush broke his long silence over the controversy and insisted that he had no idea that profits from Iranian arms sales had been sent to the contras seeking to topple Nicaragua’s Marxist-led government.
‘Wingman, Flight Leader’
Declaring his all-out support for the President, Bush, a World War II Navy pilot, said: “When the flak gets heavy out there, the wingman doesn’t go peeling off and pull away from the flight leader, especially when the flight leader is known to the wingman to have total ability and a good record.”
The usually congenial Reagan reserved many of his harsh words for the news media. By publicizing the arms sales to Iran, he suggested, the press prevented the return of two additional hostages held by Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon after three had already been released.
“What is driving me up the wall,” Reagan said, “is that this wasn’t a failure until the press got a tip from that rag in Beirut and began to play it up. I told them that publicity could destroy this, that it could get people killed. They went right on. . . . The whole thing boils down to a great irresponsibility on the part of the press.”
The “rag in Beirut” was a Syrian-backed magazine that revealed in early November that Robert C. McFarlane, Reagan’s former national security adviser, had made a secret journey to Iran for negotiations that the Administration hoped could help free the hostages.
Reagan’s comments came in an interview with Hugh Sidey, Time magazine columnist and longtime Washington journalist who has been generally sympathetic toward the President. Only one day earlier, Reagan had sacked North, the National Security Council staff member who was the central figure in arranging the arms shipments to Iran and in siphoning off as much as $30 million of the profits for the contras.
Although Reagan said he learned conclusively only last Monday of the link between the Iranian arms sales and the contras, he insisted that he did not feel “betrayed” by North.
‘In All Our Operations’
“Lt. Col. Oliver North was involved in all our operations,” the President said, including the crisis precipitated by the terrorist hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and last April’s bombing of terrorist targets in Libya. “He has a fine record. He is a national hero. My only criticism is that I wasn’t told everything.”
Reagan held that “another country"--Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III has identified it as Israel--was responsible for “facilitating” the arms sales to Iran and diverting the profits to the Nicaraguan rebels. “It wasn’t us funneling money to them,” he said. “This was another country.”
Reagan dismissed the scandal, which has brought demands from both Republicans and Democrats that he overhaul his Administration’s entire foreign policy and national security apparatus, as nothing more than a “Beltway bloodletting"--a scandal of interest only to those who live inside the freeway that encircles Washington.
Although national polls have shown a precipitous drop in public confidence in Reagan, he told Sidey: “After my speech, some 84% of those people who called in supported me. It was the biggest outpouring of calls they’ve ever had. . . .
“Frankly, I believe that as the truth comes out, people will see what we were trying to do was right. I’m not going to back off. I’m not going to crawl in a hole. I’m going to go forward. I have a lot of things to do in this job.”
Bush, in an interview conducted Friday, insisted that the United States never sought to trade arms to Iran in return for hostages. But in explaining the origin of the arms sales, he also said: “You have to know the President to know how strongly he feels about the release of hostages.”
He said the controversy resulted from the public perception that the Administration traded arms for hostages. “The President is absolutely, totally convinced in his mind that that isn’t what happened,” Bush has said. “I know him, I know what his feeling is on this. I have heard what he said, and I accept it.”
Denies Key Contras Role
Bush characterized as “totally wrong” the charge that he was conducting the Administration’s program of supplying the contras with privately donated supplies during the period from Oct. 1, 1984, to Oct. 1, 1986, when Congress had cut off public military aid.
Like the President, Bush declared his support for North. “I know and respect Ollie North,” he said. “This fellow is an unusual individual--deeply patriotic, deeply convinced on our policy of trying to restore the revolutionary dream of democracy to Nicaragua.”