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Reagan answers questions, but often doesn't remember

The familiar figure of Ronald Reagan flickered across television screens in two federal courtrooms Thursday before one of his smallest audiences ever. Several dozen reporters _ enough to pack one courtroom at one point _ watched and listened, took notes, drifted in and out.

The occasion was the first showing of the former president's videotaped testimony, taken last weekend and intended for use in the Iran-Contra trial of his onetime national security adviser, John Poindexter.

Reagan testified about Iran and about the Nicaraguan Contras, about former aides Poindexter and Oliver North, about weapons and about hostages. But, perhaps most strikingly, he testified over and over during eight hours of questioning about how much he didn't remember.

"I don't recall that," Reagan responded when asked about an investigative commission's report that North and the National Security Council were involved in aiding the Nicaraguan rebels.

When lawyers read him that part of the report, Reagan continued to deny recollection, saying his interest had been in other findings.

He was asked about American contacts with Iranian dissidents who he had hoped were in a position to form a government after the Ayatollah Khomeini's death.

"I can't recall the dates," he said.

When he was hospitalized for cancer, did government officials come to Bethesda Naval Hospital to inform him of negotiations?

"I recall I had visits at the hospital. I have to tell you, I can't recall just what they were all about," he responded.

Looking relaxed, Reagan allowed an occasional smile to cross his lips, and he chuckled once when lawyers began arguing about a question.

Another time he thanked the judge for interceding during questions about his having quoted Abraham Lincoln. Through a smile, Reagan remarked that such questions just increase the jokes about his age.

But again and again _ indeed 10 times in one 30-minute stretch _ Reagan said he didn't recall events.

Was he ever told that it would be better to have Israel handle the delivery of missiles to Iran?

"No, I don't recall that."

Did he recall being told that private individuals were involved?

"No, I don't."

Did he know the details of providing spare parts for Hawk missiles for Iran?

"I just don't recall."

Had he ever discussed with Poindexter what to say if the story came out?

"I don't recall, I don't recall that."

Did he meet with Poindexter between two news conferences in November 1986?

"I don't recall."

When he met with congressional leaders, was Poindexter present?

"I don't recall."

Did he remember when he was informed of the Hawk missile shipment?

"I actually don't. I don't recall when I was told or who told me."

Was that information given to him in Geneva, when he was preparing for a meeting with Soviet President Gorbachev?

"I don't have a clear recollection of what was discussed. There were so many meetings in so many different places."