WASHINGTON -- President Reagan returned to the White House Sunday from four days of seclusion at his California ranch, where aides said he telephoned Syrian President Hafez Assad to thank him for Syria's 'assistance' in the return of American reporter Jeremy Levin.
The president and Mrs. Reagan returned to Washington in the evening after the first vacation of Reagan's second term, which they spent at the mountaintop ranch in summer-like weather and largely uninterrupted by world events.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes disclosed that Reagan personally telephoned Assad Saturday and, through a translator, spoke about 10 to 12 minutes.
'The president described it as a warm exchange,' Speakes told reporters aboard Air Force One. 'The purpose of the call was to express his appreciation for Syria's assistance in the return of Jeremy Levin.'
Speakes would not say whether Syria in any way helped with Levin's escape but said Reagan praised Assad for his troops being 'very cooperative after he (Levin) arrived' at their camp after two hours of walking from the Bekaa Valley apartment where he was held.
'During the conversation, Assad indicated he was pleased he was able to be of assistance and indicated he would continue to work for the release of the three other hostages,' Speakes said.
Reagan was taking Monday -- President's Day -- off from official duties and then was to prepare for meetings Wednesday with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that will focus on arms control, the strength ofthe dollar and huge U.S. budget deficits..
He is expected to hold a news conference later in the week.
For the last few days, world issues have been kept in the background as Reagan spent his days horseback riding, chopping wood, clearing brush and tending to other ranch chores far from public view in an environment he has described as a tonic that relives the rigors of public life.
In an interview published Sunday in the Santa Barbara News-Press, Reagan said he enjoys his visits to the ranch because 'when you get in there, the world is gone.'
'I'll tell you,' he said, 'I think that particular place casts a spell on you.'
Reagan said the five-room adobe ranch house and rustic setting offer a welcome contrast to day-to-day life in the White House, where the luxury is offset by 'a kind of a bird-in-a-gilded-cage feeling.'
'This is one of the benefits of going up to Camp David,' Reagan said of the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains where he spends most weekends. 'There you go and you spend a weekend in a normal size house, where you can open a door and go out in the backyard and things of that kind.'
At the same time, Reagan defended himself against allegations his regular jaunts back to California, which have averaged better than one every two months, place him on vacation any more than his recent predecessors. Last year, he took some six weeks of vacation time.
Scoffing at those who suggest he is a leisure-time president, he recounted President Carter's frequent trips to Georgia, President Ford's ski trips to Vail, Colo., President Nixon's retreats to Florida and California, President Eisenhower's golf excursions to Augusta, Ga., and even Franklin Roosevelt's visits to Warm Springs, Ga.
'I think Nancy put it best: 'Presidents don't get vacations. They just get a change of scenery,'' Reagan said. 'And you're still president. The job goes with you.'
'You find that there's something that you need,' the 74-year-old Reagan said. 'And I look at it another way: at my age, how many more years do I have to go to the ranch and enjoy the ranch? You give up an awful lot in privacy and so forth in these positions and I think you're entitled.'
From the ranch, some 2,400 feet up in the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Reagans command a view of the blue waters of the Pacific on one side and the green Santa Ynez Valley on the other.
And while he values the time he spends away from Washington, the president said he and the first lady have no plans to retire to the privacy of Rancho del Cielo four years from now.
'I couldn't get that far from the ocean,' he said.
Ruling out Palm Springs and its environs because he has 'never been a great aficionado of the desert,' Reagan said he expects to again settle in the Los Angeles area and make occasional trips to the ranch.