By all of the carefully orchestrated outward appearances, the White House is running as smoothly as ever these days, from the annual Christmas festivities to President Reagan's ceremonial appearances Wednesday to promote human rights, U.S. Savings Bonds and the United Way.
But beneath the business-as-usual surface, the president's staff is enveloped in an Iran scandal-ridden atmosphere of despair, confusion, paralysis and uncertainty about who is in charge and where the Reagan presidency is headed, according to numerous White House officials.
"The truth of the matter is you have a president who never was a hands-on guy even before this, having to depend totally on a staff that includes people who are leaving, people who have their own agenda and people who are protecting themselves. It's a mess, " said one admittedly frustrated official.
The assessments of nearly a dozen other White House officials -- who agreed to discuss the effect of the Iran-contra affair if their names were not used -- were somewhat less bleak. But all concurred that the crisis has hurt morale and -- for the first time in his presidency -- hampered Reagan's efforts to govern. One senior adviser said glumly that preoccupation with the controversy has prevented Reagan and other senior aides from concentrating on many routine matters and has put them on the defensive.
"There's no doubt that on the political side and the communications side, all the resources are devoted to this particular battle, " he said. "Domestic policy is going forward and they've been having meeting after meeting. But there's no doubt this is having an impact on the foreign policy machinery. That's unquestionable."
A Cabinet-level official who has been dealing with the president's top men in recent days observed that "there is a terrific sense of gloom and distress in the West Wing (White House offices)."
And a senior official at another department asked plaintively, "Can you tell me who's in charge at the White House? I don't know any more."
LINE OF COMMAND
One of the biggest problems besetting the White House is a disintegration of Reagan's line of command, for reasons that are both coincidental and that stem from the Iranian arms crisis:
* The president, under pressure to say what he knows about the Iranian arms sales and the diversion of up to $30 million in profits to the Nicaraguan contras, has refused to answer any questions except those posed by internal and independent investigators. His steadfast silence has produced some awkward moments at photo sessions with visiting dignitaries as he was pictured uncharacteristically waving off reporters' shouted questions and turning away from them.
* White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, who normally runs the White House with an iron hand, has been under siege, with many prominent Republican and Democratic figures demanding his resignation.
* The president's National Security Council, a key body for carrying out foreign policy, essentially has been shut down. Former national security adviser John M. Poindexter was forced to resign. His successor, Frank Carlucci, has promised a major housecleaning, leaving staff members pondering their immediate futures rather than U.S. foreign policy.
* The president's chief spokesman, Larry Speakes, announced last week he is leaving Feb. 1 for a public relations job on Wall Street. Because of that -- and the silence maintained by both Reagan and Regan -- it is no longer clear if Speakes speaks with any authority.