TWO FACES OF REAGAN

WILL THE REAL RONALD REAGAN please stand up? The figure on television Wednesday night dispelled any notion that this was a president physically disabled or struck with loss of memory. His confident manner, ready command of the language and alert appearance gave the lie to the spate of rumors that had welled up since the Iran contra affair first erupted last November.

While the performance was forthright, bringing the president as close as he could come to saying he was wrong and was sorry without actually doing so, it still left doubters. A Chicago housewife, questioned on ABC's Good Morning America, for instance, said it only added to her conviction that Mr. Reagan had a telling way with words.Even Bob Dole, now the minority leader in the Senate and a 1988 presidential hopeful, acknowledged that Mr. Reagan would have to do more to convince a significant number of the disillusioned. And there's always the possibility that the special prosecutor or one of the two congressional committees looking into the questions the Tower Commission left unanswered will come up with something approximating a smoking gun.

Donald Regan, the White House major domo who has been replaced by Howard Baker, fell from grace because he failed to let "Reagan be Reagan." That's the contention of the president's hard-core conservative backers. But Murray Kempton, the columnist, contends that the president failed precisely because he was permitted to be himself.

Mr. Reagan, like Jimmy Carter before him, came to Washington as an outlander, openly contemptuous of the resident political professionals. If Donald Regan had any special sin, it was to nourish this presidential error. His predecessor, James A. Baker III, somehow managed to keep it in check. Mr. Kempton takes up this theme:

"Now things have turned out for this president quite the way some of the professionals worried and others hoped they would, and here the professionals come, first to condemn his errors and then to surround and capture him.

"The president's mistake is an odd one, because he ought to have learned better from the errors of the professionals who preceded him. His lapse was more excusable than theirs: Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Nixon both came to disaster because they forgot the historical lesson that Mr. Reagan has at last learned, which is that government is a collective process and a president is ruined whenever he is bemused into letting himself be simply himself."

But has he really learned that lesson? Isn't it possible that, if the Iran contra affair can be put behind him, Mr. Reagan will resurrect his old personality of the single-minded ideologue? Even now, for instance, the Wall Street Journal is singing the (faint) praises of Howard Baker but wondering if this doesn't spell the end of the Reagan presidency. The issue will be determined, it believes, by how much the president backs down on things like a tax increase, free trade and star wars.

This, we think, misses the point. We would hope and expect Mr. Reagan to make the strongest case possible for the things he believes in. His failing on Iran was that he made no attempt whatsoever to argue the case, on the contras that he argued unsuccessfully, and on both that he left to appointed undercover operatives the charting of policy that should have been determined by elected officials, himself notably.

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