SAY IT ISN'T SO, MR. PRESIDENT

Gary Wills' book, "Reagan's America: Innocents at Home," was in print and on the way to bookstores when the Iran/Arms/Contra news broke. But it would require hardly any editing to shoehorn in a chapter on the scandal.

Mr. Wills' thesis is that the country believes Mr. Reagan's myths about

himself and the nation because he devoutly believes in them himself. And the 75 million who voted for him in 1984 want passionately to believe that America does indeed stand tall; that there will always be a sheriff to ride out of the Old West to set things right once and for all.The sheriff would never bargain with terrorist kidnappers. But if the sheriff's deputies, working in a basement somewhere, want to bargain, what can the tall sheriff do?

Mr. Wills dug in county courthouse archives unopened before his search. He studied places in Mr. Reagan's past that he says the president would rather forget: the radio station of the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, for example, where Mr. Reagan got his first announcing job; Eureka

College in Illinois and the files of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood where Mr. Reagan's memory does not square with the facts.

Mr. Reagan has lived in a mythical world from his boyhood. From college days on, he has cloaked his life in fantasies. And sad for us, the president knows his audience only too well. His fantasies tug at the heart. They are so American.

Some examples: The World War II bomber story and the Nazi death camp films.

In the bomber story, President Reagan said on the campaign trail that a B- 17 had been shot up in a raid over Germany and was limping home over the English Channel. The plane sank toward the sea with sputtering engines. They weren't going to make it to land so the pilot told the crew to bail out. They all parachuted into the sea , except the tail gunner who told his pilot on the intercom that he was wounded and his legs were hopelessly trapped. The pilot crawled back to the gunner and said he'd stay with him to the end. True story, said the president.

But if they all bailed out and the pilot and the gunner died in the crash, who reported the words?

When reporters asked for clarification, there was none. The president was remembering a war movie script. According to Sam Donaldson of ABC, Larry Speaks, the White House communicator, said, "But it is a good story, right? ''

President Reagan told Jewish leaders on two occasions in the Oval Office that he had been with the Army Signal Corps to film the Nazi death camps after they were liberated by U.S. soldiers at the close of the war. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel was so moved that he told the story to his Cabinet and the Israeli press picked it up.

But in fact, Mr. Reagan had never left the country from one end of the war to the other.

The problems the White House staff had clarifying the death camp film story was crucial to the planning that went into the Bitburg cemetery visit. The Bonn government had urged the president to visit a death camp, but the staff did not want to turn their leader loose in that fantasy again.

Does it bother Mr. Reagan that George Gipp was a drunk, a gambler and a jock-scholarship layabout at Notre Dame? That the "win one for the Gipper" story was a fake told by a master of the half-time locker room fakery, Knute Rockne? What's to bother? Mr. Reagan told his followers in the congressional elections last fall to go out and to do it for the Gipper.

Critics have been asking for six years how Mr. Reagan does his balancing act between reality and myth. Tip O'Neill, the former House Speaker, dismisses the president. "He's an actor."

Clark Clifford, Washington lawyer credited with writing the Truman doctrine to contain communism, took time at a memorial for Harry Truman to recognize Mr. Reagan as "an amiable dunce." But as astute as these politicians are, they have missed the point.

There are no contradictions, Mr. Wills explains in the closing chapter: ''Original Sinlessness."

Mr. Wills is a conservative who broke in writing for William Buckley's magazine, National Review. Before that he was for six years or so a seminarian in the Catholic order of priests, the Society of Jesus. He was a Jesuit.

Mr. Wills argues that the Christian doctrine of original sin is now the sole province in America of the Catholic Church. Although it was not always so. The fall of man was central to the thought of St. Augustine in the Fourth Century and to John Calvin in the Sixteenth. And also to the religious men who wrote our Constitution.

But original sin does not fit the expansive consumerist American style. We are optimists and our clergymen, on and off television, preach mind cure.

Mr. Wills writes: "Original sin, the belief in a shared human corruption, treats religion . . . in the sick soul manner. But America's contribution to the history of Christian practice has been an institutional effort to cure the sick soul, here and now." The denial of original sin is central to the Reagan view of the world, Mr. Wills says.

Mr. Reagan speaks for those among us who deny human corruption; who refuse to belive the facts of the drug culture and the poverty of the ghetto. His State of the Union messages, one after the other, describe an America on the move; standing tall; poised for greatness. There is no rust belt. There are no farm foreclosures; no farm family suicides. These things destroy the American myth of optimism. The President will have none of it.

Mr. Reagan has never fared well with the working press. It is a newspaper reporter's professional task to describe reality as best he can. Watching Mr. Reagan, that is a very difficult job.

And Mr. Wills explains just why this is so. It is a sad book he writes. But it does indeed describe reality.

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