JIMMY CARTER went out limping from his encounter with Iran. Ronald Reagan isn't exiting laughing over Iran-contra. But his final 17 months could show some flashes of triumph. Despite the battering he's received, the President is still very active. Lou Cannon of the Washington Post, who is a longtime Reagan-watcher, cites the President's current involvement in a number of initiatives as evidence that this chief executive has a good chance of gaining a positive assessment by the time he leaves office. These initiatives include the search for a nuclear arms pact, the new effort toward achieving peace in Nicaragua, and the push to get Judge Robert Bork on the Supreme Court.
Mr. Cannon has been tough on the President for his involvement - or lack of involvement - in the Iran-contra affair. Cannon calls his shots fairly, and he consistently achieves what is impossible for most of the rest of the White House press: He has the respect of both the President and those in the media who delight in writing stories that criticize Mr. Reagan and his administration.
At breakfast with reporters the other morning, former Sen. John Tower said he thought the worst is behind the President and that he will ``move smartly'' toward making the most of his final months. Senator Tower, one of the three authors of the early Tower report on the Iran-contra affair, believes the President is the winner and Congress the loser in the congressional hearings.
Mr. Tower asserted that Congress ``lost'' in three areas: in not finding out that Reagan knew about the funds diversion, ``in making a hero out of Ollie North,'' and in building public support for the contras.
Reagan's performance approval rating by the public stands at about 50 percent, a Washington Post poll shows. Reagan has stayed, during the disclosures and inquiries, about 10 or 15 percentage points below where he had been in public esteem before the Iran-contra affair.
But it's remarkable for a president to go through this and still hold above 40 percent in public approval, and to stay at 50 percent now. Remember how low Mr. Carter, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson dropped in the polls when their administrations fell on dark days?
When Carter's administration began to lag badly in midterm, he admitted it on TV and sounded apologetic about his inability to cope. He even brought in experts to advise him on how to proceed.
Reagan is a President who, as Cannon points out, never says he's sorry. He has admitted mistakes in the Iran-contra matter and quickly appointed a panel - the Tower Commission - to probe the mess. He has begun to show more cooperation toward Congress.
The public doesn't want a president who demeans himself by apologizing and asking for forgiveness. That embarrasses the voters.
They do want a president who stands up to his problems forthrightly and moves strongly to get on with his job.
Looking back at Reagan's second term, Cannon writes: ``He answered the charge that he was all rhetoric and no results by negotiating with Democrats to produce useful welfare and tax legislation. In the seven years of his presidency, he has become a more engaged and active chief executive than before the Iran-contra scandal.''
It's difficult to challenge a Cannon view: He has been close to his subject for a long time. But my perception is that Reagan, except during illness, has always been an active chief executive. He gives the appearance of being laid back and detached.
But it is apparent from the testimony of George Shultz, Donald Regan, and Caspar Weinberger that those around him viewed the President as fully engaged in the big decisions - and one who stubbornly held his ground.
Reagan has become more visibly involved in governing since Iran-contra. That was the advice he got from his new advisers, including Howard Baker Jr., who now sits at the President's right hand.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.