President Reagan, conceding "there's nothing I can say that will make the situation right," Wednesday offered the bluntest apology he has made thus far for his role in the Iran- contra scandal, then pledged to press ahead with a familiar agenda of domestic and foreign policy goals during the rest of his term.
In an 18-minute speech billed as a final comment on Congress' summerlong inquiry into the affair, Reagan said that Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had been right in warning him that secret arms sales to Iran would become a political debacle if made public.
He appeared also to rebuke a central figure in the drama, former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, for failing to tell him that $3.5 million in Iran arms profits were diverted to Nicaragua's rebels.
"The admiral testified he wanted to protect me," Reagan said. "Yet no President should ever be protected from the truth. No operation is so secret that it must be kept from the commander-in-chief."
Although his words were more contrite than in previous remarks on the scandal, the President went no further Wednesday in accepting blame or responsibility for the scandal as a major foreign policy blunder than he had in his last major statement March 4.
The President did not concede that his approval of the Iranian arms sales was not merely a political misstep but a strategic blunder--as both Shultz and Weinberger told him in 1985, before arms shipments were begun and again in 1986.
And Reagan pointedly omitted any direct criticism of Poindexter or his aide, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, for proceeding with the diversion of money from the arms sales to the contras, the disclosure of which last November plunged the White House into the worst political crisis in a decade.
"Col. North and Adm. Poindexter believed they were doing what I would've wanted done--keeping the democratic resistance alive in Nicaragua," Reagan said. "I believed then, and I believe now, in preventing the Soviets from establishing a beachhead in Central America."
In the one-third of the speech devoted to the scandal, Reagan called for the White House and Congress to "regain trust in each other," describing steps he has taken to prevent a recurrence of abuses in the executive branch but declaring that closer cooperation between the two arms of government on sensitive foreign-policy matters is the best way to keep a tight rein over secret initiatives.
"In the end, this may be the eventual blessing in disguise to come out of the Iran-contra mess," he said.
Reagan's speech came amid signs that public trust in his presidency is undergoing at least partial recovery after 10 months of damaging disclosures, although White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater conceded this week that the Iran-contra issue "will be with us for the rest of the Administration."
An ABC-Washington Post opinion poll concluded that about half of the nation still believes that Reagan is not telling the full truth about the scandal, compared to 69% in June, when the House and Senate Iran-contra hearings were getting under way.
In an apparent effort to show that he considers the affair behind him, Reagan devoted most of Wednesday's address to the sort of conservative agenda which he said got him elected in 1981 and to which he pledged to devote "my heart and my energies for the remainder of my term."
"There are now 17 months left in this Administration, and I want them to be prosperous, productive ones," Reagan said. " . . . Up until the morning I leave this house, I intend to do what you sent me here to do--lead the nation toward the goals we agreed on when you elected me."
Bork Heads List
The list was headed by an already fierce effort to win Senate confirmation for U.S. appeals court Judge Robert H. Bork, Reagan's nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.
The President repeated his call for a simplified federal budget-making process and for a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget, which he has sought without success throughout his presidency.
Adding a new twist to the balanced-budget campaign, Reagan promised in his speech to negotiate "every spending item" in the budget if Congress agrees to permit a vote on the budget amendment. The White House previously has refused to discuss reductions in many defense spending items.
In foreign policy, Reagan repeated his desire to reach a long-expected agreement with the Soviet Union on eliminating short-range nuclear missiles worldwide and to make progress on a pact to cut the number of intercontinental missiles. He also expressed a desire to stabilize the political situation in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf.
His most ardent remarks, however, were reserved for Central America, where he said Nicaraguans under the Sandinista regime are "still burning for freedom" as neighboring U.S.-backed nations institute democratic reforms.
'Committed' to Contras
He expressed hope that a peace plan signed last week by five Central American leaders will lead to democratic changes in Nicaragua but stressed that he is "totally committed" to U.S.-backed contra forces opposing the Sandinistas.
White House officials had promised that Reagan's address would be devoid of any bitterness or anger over the Iran-contra affair and the President himself showed none Wednesday evening, though he said that occasionally he had been "mad as a hornet" over the affair.
The only remark in Reagan's speech that appeared to border on bitterness was near the conclusion, when the President urged Congress to be "as thorough and energetic" in enacting his conservative agenda "as it was in pursuing the recent investigation" into the scandal.
Addressing his own credibility troubles stemming from the scandal, Reagan said at the start of his speech that he knew the months of revelations had been "confusing and painful" for the nation and that many people still doubted that the truth had been brought out.
Cooperated With Congress
He said, however, that he had cooperated fully and willingly with Congress, supplying some 250,000 White House documents and "parts of my own diaries" to investigators.
Reagan also declared that the results of investigations made public so far had produced facts that "I don't like:"
--Shultz and Weinberger, he said, had warned him before the Iran arms sales began that "the American people would assume that this whole plan was an arms for hostages deal and nothing more. Unfortunately, they were right."
--Reagan's own concerns for hostages held by radicals in Lebanon--"Americans in chains, deprived of their freedom and families so far from home"--swayed his judgment about the arms sales, he said. "This was a mistake."
--The President said he had thought often about how to explain to the public what he had hoped the Iran project would accomplish, without success. "The fact of the matter is that there's nothing I can say that will make the situation right," he said, in what was perhaps the most frank admission of the entire speech. "I was stubborn in my pursuit of a policy that went astray."
The President was less contrite about North's and Poindexter's secret support of the Nicaraguan rebels, although allegations stemming from their operations ultimately were more politically damaging to the White House than the Iran project itself.
Denies Diversion Knowledge
He repeated that he knew the contras were receiving aid from foreign countries and private citizens, and added "in capital letters" that he did not know North was diverting Iran arms profits to the rebels. "Indeed," he said, "I didn't know there were excess funds" from the sales to divert.
The President disagreed with Poindexter, who had assumed responsibility for the diversion in the House-Senate hearings, saying that "the buck does not stop with Adm. Poindexter, as he stated in his testimony; it stops with me. I am the one who is ultimately accountable to the American people."
However, Reagan did not say in his address whether he approved of Poindexter's and North's secret funneling of arms and money to the rebels.