WASHINGTON -- Presidential counselor Edwin Meese, whose remarks about hunger in America sparked controversy, Thursday defended President Reagan's compassion and said 'let's be fair' to a misunderstood Ebenezer Scrooge.
Meese also told a National Press Club audience he has 'no doubt there are some, there may be many' hungry people in America.
The hunger issue was raised by Meese's comments during an interview last week in which he said he had seen no authoritative data to show there are hungry children. He also suggested some people get in soup lines 'because the food is free and that that's easier than paying for it.'
In response, House Speaker Thomas O'Neill said last week, 'There's always a Scrooge during the holiday season.'
Meese explained Thursday: 'The question I raised in the interview and that we want to find out the facts about (is) if there are hungry people -- and I have no doubt that there are some, there may be many -- we don't know the extent of that.
'At a time at which our country ... is expending unprecedented amounts of money and effort to feed hungry people, then why are there people whose food needs have not been met? That's what we need to find out.'
He said the 'biggest myth of all' about the Reagan administration is that the president is uncaring and wants to hack away at welfare and social programs.
'Rarely has compassion been so mistaken for its opposite,' Meese said, adding that Reagan's policies have lowered the inflation rate to below 4 percent, helping 'more than any welfare program known to man.'
The presidential aide then surprised the audience by concluding his speech by defending Scrooge, the fictional character in Charles Dickens,' 'A Christmas Carol,' who overworks and underpays employee Bob Cratchit.
The crowd gasped as Meese -- without indicating in any way that he was joking -- said:
'Scrooge had a bad press in his time. If you really look at the facts, he didn't exploit Bob Cratchit. As a matter of fact, Bob Cratchit was paid 10 shillings a week -- which was a very good wage at that time.
'Furthermore, the free market would not allow Scrooge to exploit poor Bob. England didn't get free public schools until after Dickens was dead. So that the fact Bob Cratchit could read and write made him a very valuable :lerk.
'He had good cause to be happy with his situation. His wife didn't have to work. He was able to afford the traditional Christmas dinner of roast goose and plum pudding.
'So let's be fair to Scrooge. He had his faults, but he wasn't unfair to anyone,' Meese said.
The White House had no immediate comment on Meese's remarks.
At the White House, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes accused O'Neill of trying to 'play politics' with the hunger issue.
On Wednesday, O'Neill said Congress had approved $44 million to pay for distributing surplus commodities to the poor, but 'the Reagan people have refused to release this funding.'
'There's less to the speaker's charge than meets the eye,' Speakes told reporters. 'I think the speaker has done a disservice by trying to play politics with the issue.'
Congress authorized $50 million, but appropriated only $6 million at first and then made the remainder contingent on a request from Reagan.
'The administration intends to request funding,' but there is a 'procedural problem' the administration must first clear up, Speakes said. 'We want it done and we want it done now.'