Forward Spin

Trying to get arms control back on track

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Flying home from Reykjavik at the start of last week, Ronald Reagan appeared to be winging from one debacle to another. The dejection in the President's carriage as he walked out of Hofdi house, the disappointment etched into every line of Secretary of State George Shultz's face as he briefed the press, had flashed an unmistakable message to TV watchers around the world: the summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev had ended in failure. Worse, headlines were already spreading the impression that Reagan had thrown away the promise of a nuclear-free world by clinging to his vision of a space-based defense -- even if there might be no missiles to defend against.

But even before Air Force One reached Washington, White House Spokesman Larry Speakes and Chief of Staff Donald Regan launched a campaign to reverse the downbeat impressions. They urged National Security Adviser John Poindexter to wander back into the press compartment of the plane. "Do you really want me to do it?" asked Poindexter, who had assiduously avoided the press during his first ten months in office. Assured that it was unavoidable, he conducted an 80-min. airborne briefing. While it was in progress, Regan and eight aides were sketching the next steps in what flowered into a publicity blitz unprecedented in this Administration. Its purpose: to persuade the U.S. and the world to emulate the optimistic child in one of Reagan's favorite jokes who finds a pile of manure in his room on Christmas morning and begins shoveling away, convinced that "there must be a pony here somewhere."

After his Monday night televised report to the nation, the Great Communicator took his case on the campaign trail. But his aides handled most of the spin control, trooping before every microphone, TV camera, journalistic conclave or group of citizens they could find or summon to uncover a pony of hope under what at first looked like the manure of Reykjavik. Shultz, who rarely sees the press, in two days invited himself to sessions with editors of the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and all three TV networks, then returned from a quick trip to El Salvador for a Friday speech to the National Press Club. Regan logged 23 sessions with newsmagazines, columnists and other journalists, while Poindexter got himself interviewed by representatives of British, French, German, Turkish and Norwegian TV stations. He sought out American reporters so avidly that ABC Correspondent Sam Donaldson, approached by Poindexter in a White House corridor, recoiled in mock horror and said, "No, no, you can't force me to interview you."

All told, the three top aides last week logged 44 briefings and interviews that, contrary to usual practice, were all on-the-record. A summit that had begun with a news blackout ended up producing a whiteout of pronouncements, amplifications and amended remarks.

This week aides will take the show on the road, fanning out to 15 areas from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. Says Speakes, their dispatcher: "I told these guys they had to get an invitation to do a speech, then hold an open press conference, do a local television show and an editorial-board meeting with the local papers, and then they could come home." In every speech, interview and appearance, the spin doctors hammered at three main points:

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