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.
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"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.
* White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan, without seeking Regan's advance approval, launched a one-man campaign Monday to rally support behind the president and Lt. Col. Oliver North, the NSC official who was fired because he allegedly masterminded the scheme to divert Iranian arms money to the contras. Initially, Speakes distanced Reagan from Buchanan's remarks, which included attacks on Republican critics of the president and a moral defense of possible illegal actions by North. But on Wednesday, Speakes gave formal White House blessings to Buchanan's crusade.
Regan's close assistants insist that the scandal has had no impact on White House operations. "He is working a normal schedule and seeing the president frequently as he normally does. Nothing has changed, " said one aide.
Administration officials involved with domestic policy concur, noting that preparation of a new federal budget next month is proceeding on schedule. But in nearly every other area, the White House machinery seems geared to deal exclusively with the Iran-contra affair.
Rep. Dante Fascell, D-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is investigating the scandal, said the White House is so "preoccupied" by the Iran affair that no one is dealing with issues ranging from nuclear arms control to the budget deficit. Reagan "must provide reassurance the government is running, " he added.
In the meantime, Reagan is trying to project an image of normalcy; he even went through with the annual Christmas Party this week for the very press corps he repeatedly has blamed for stirring up the crisis in the first place.
But Reagan does have cause to celebrate the arrival of Christmas, noted one former assistant. "We're in the middle of what normally would be a month-long holiday lull, " the former aide said. "Congress is not in session, you're not getting bills coming up here every day, no one would be here if it weren't for this Iran thing . . . "