President Reagan, in his nationwide address on the Iran- contra scandal Wednesday evening, publicly accepted the two central findings made by the Tower Commission last week: that he allowed secret talks with Iran to degenerate into an arms-for-hostages deal, and that his management of national security affairs has been lax.
In a speech that directly acknowledged mistakes but also offered a brisk defense of his actions and a plea to the nation to move forward, Reagan said he had sold arms to the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini with the best of intentions--the hope of freeing U.S. hostages held in Lebanon.
Yet, while saying his "hands-off" management style had worked well in the past but had fallen short in the Iran-contra affair, Reagan did not clearly embrace the advice of both critics and friends that he alter his personal method of governing.
Instead, in a speech from the Oval Office that lasted a bare 12 minutes, the President left it to the future to provide definitive answers to at least two questions that go to the heart of his performance as the nation's chief executive:
--How did Reagan lose control of the tangled Iranian initiative as it slid from failure to failure?
--Will he change his own operating style to assure that in the future he is adequately involved not only in the formulation of critical national policies, but also in their execution?
It is the role of the National Security Council staff, as used by past presidents and envisioned for Reagan by the presidential commission headed by John Tower, to lay out all policy options and their likely consequences, to help the chief executive make decisions. After decisions are made, the staff coordinates the execution of policies involving more than one agency.
Weighing the factors and making decisions, however, is considered the responsibility of the President. The record of the Iran-contra affair suggests a President must also play an active role in the over-all supervision of how his decisions are implemented.
It was on this point that the Tower Commission presented its most biting criticism of Reagan's stewardship. "The NSC system will not work unless the President makes it work," the panel said. "After all, this system was created to serve the President of the United States in ways of his choosing." And, reacting to Reagan's speech, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said: "The President has to become involved. He is going to have to change his work style."
In commenting on his own role, however, Reagan said little more than that he had learned and changed from his experience with the Iran-contra debacle.
Reagan's address, apparently kept short to achieve maximum impact, also avoided some of the Tower panel's more specific questions: Who, if anyone, approved Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's efforts to raise money for the contras? And how could North operate as freely and as long as he did without the knowledge of officials at the highest level of the government?
Reagan repeatedly said he would take the blame for any errors that were made--but he implied that most of the mistakes were made by others, and portrayed himself as uncertain of how his Administration's most controversial policy had been launched or managed.
"As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities," he said. "As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I am still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior."
Reagan said the leadership style that has defined his 14 years in state and federal government--giving subordinates a task, and letting them "go to it" with little supervision--did not work in the Iran-contra affair.
"When it comes to managing the NSC staff," he said, "Let's face it: My style didn't match its previous track record."
But he defended his method as "a style that has worked successfully for me during eight years as governor of California and for most of my presidency," and gave no indication that he planned to change it.
Instead, Reagan said, the problem was being corrected by admonishing the NSC staff to pay more attention to Congress, public opinion and the law. He noted that he told NSC aides this week: "There'll be no more free-lancing."
Though Reagan's speech emphasized changes in staffing and staff procedures, some of the President's critics--and some of his friends--expressed the hope that he will find a way to alter his own methods.
"Can an old dog change his style?" asked former Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Me.), a member of the Tower panel. "I'm not quite as old as the President, but I'm close enough, and I'd say yes."
"I have a feeling he's going to be a hands-on President from this time forward," said former Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), a Reagan confidant.
In his speech, Reagan acknowledged that he had allowed his "personal concern for the hostages" to color the intent of arms sales originally meant as a political overture to Iran. He did not admit that he ever intended to trade arms for hostages, saying that such a swap "runs counter to my own beliefs" and to White House policy.
Rather, the President said, his real mistake was to "ask so many questions about the hostages' welfare that I didn't ask enough about the specifics of the total Iran plan."
The Tower Commission report also cited Reagan's "intense compassion" for the hostages, saying it may have swayed advisers to pursue the arms swap more vigorously than they otherwise might have. But the report also suggests that the President was well aware of the specifics of the plan, documenting a long series of personal briefings throughout the 15-month Iran affair.
It noted that in December, 1985, when all of Reagan's advisers wanted to halt the arms sales, the President alone argued in favor of continuing the deals. And it quoted the President as writing in his diary on Jan. 17, 1986, after signing a secret finding injecting the CIA into the Iran initiative: "I agreed to sell TOWs to Iran."
On the key issue of whether money was diverted from the Iranian arms sales to aid the Nicaraguan rebels, the President said he was still in the dark. "The facts here will be left to the continuing investigations," he said. " . . . I didn't know about any diversion of funds to the contras. But as President, I cannot escape responsibility."
Reagan did not address the issue of whether he had authorized North to raise money for military aid to the rebels during the period when Congress prohibited any U.S. help for their war--or even whether he was aware that his aide was organizing the rebels' supply system.