News conferences in the Reagan years have been equally frustrating for the news media. Reporters accustomed to questioning Reagan's combative but well- informed predecessors found it difficult to adjust to the challenge of grilling a cheerful and confident president who disliked spending time with briefing books and was rarely deterred by facts.
The Reagan style was vividly demonstrated in an error-ridden news conference in June, 1981. In this, the third news conference of his presidency, Reagan incorrectly described defensive surface-to-air missiles which the Syrians had placed in Lebanon as "offensive missiles." He also booted a question about whether a limited war could be fought in Europe without becoming a nuclear conflagration.
The president's advisers shuddered at his answers. But Reagan expressed confidence after the news conference that Americans would be accepting of his performance, his first news conference since the attempt on his life 10 weeks earlier. Reagan turned out to be right, and his advisers reached the conclusion that television viewers were sympathetic to the president and not particularly disturbed by his thin grasp of substance. Reagan's supposed ''Teflon" quality described what seemed to be a magical immunity to the consequences of mistakes and misstatements.
The presumption of Reagan's invincibility has vanished in the past four months. Reagan's last news conference, Nov. 19, was an unmitigated disaster that sent poll ratings plummeting and the president into semi-hibernation.
Within a half-hour of the news conference, the White House discarded a policy of declining to correct presidential misstatements, and acknowledged that Reagan was wrong when he denied involvement of a "third country," meaning Israel, in the Iran arms sale.
Since that news conference, almost all of Reagan's assertions about the arms deal have been contradicted by findings of the Tower commission or repudiated by the president himself. Still, polls show that the majority of Americans remain dissatisfied with Reagan's explanations, and are skeptical of his assertion that he knew nothing about diversion of arms-sales proceeds to Nicaraguan Contras.
But as Reagan's managers prepare him for his 40th news conference,
tentatively scheduled for Thursday, their worries extend beyond the labyrinth of the Iran-Contra scandal and the president's responses to the inevitable questions about it.
The concern in the White House is that Americans may now see Reagan through different eyes and expect from him a higher level of accuracy on all matters and a more secure grasp of issues. The president's managers also believe Americans are likely to remember Reagan's promise in his carefully scripted speech earlier this month: that he had learned his lesson and would pay more attention to the inner workings of his government.
Reagan could match these words with deeds by showing at his news conference that he understands the challenges facing his administration. When he goes before the cameras, Americans will be watching to see if the president is capable of measuring up to hard questioning without a script in hand.