TIME is running out on this administration - but you would never know it. It is reminiscent of the way these never-give-up basketball teams are able at the last second to seize victory out of the jaws of defeat. The stage is better imagery for Ronald Reagan than sports are, however. One could well say that in the midst of his last act - in his Moscow scene - the President, after a performance that of late had been on the downside, redeemed himself. Who would have ever imagined that a lead New York Times editorial would close its critique of Mr. Reagan's speech to the students at Moscow State University: ``When people some day look back to the milestones of the cold war, they are likely to remember the day Ronald Reagan extolled freedom, while Lenin looked on.''
No doubt about it. This President showed in Russia why he has been called ``the Great Communicator'' in the United States. Russians warmed to Reagan, even though they didn't always agree with his advice. His sincerity and lack of pretension wowed his listeners. Even Reagan's most cynical critics in the US were having to concede that in this severe test his stamina and speaking and acting skills had more than measured up.
As the President comes home and addresses still-nagging problems, it will suddenly dawn on the public that his days in office are numbered. Actually, he has about five more months. After the November election the interregnum begins. Congress turns away and the public gives full attention to the next president.
Perhaps in the few months remaining to him the President will be able to sign a nuclear-arms reduction pact with the Soviets. Perhaps he will merely help pave the way toward such a pact.
But whatever lies ahead for this President, the end is so close that it is possible to make a rough assessment of his total time in office.
From the drumbeat of criticism in the US news media, one could conclude that Reagan will be remembered mainly for Iran-contra and for all of those people in his administration who have failed to measure up ethically. The portrait that so many US observers have been painting of late is of a President who is affable but detached, a leader who has let the nation drift along. Indeed, one widespread view of the White House scene holds that it is Nancy Reagan who asserts much of the power behind the President.
But his signal success in Moscow makes it inevitable that any assessment of the President will have to emphasize resilience. Iran-contra could have destroyed another president. Reagan somehow kept the support and trust of the public during his darkest days. Many who faulted him for dealing with Iran or not preventing the transfer of funds to the contras remained, somehow, among his backers. Reagan's critics attributed his continual popularity to the pull of the President's personality. But it could be said that his ability to keep the people behind him - through thick and thin - was a natural leadership quality.
And this leadership has resulted in some important achievements. Even Donald Regan in his ``kiss-and-tell'' book points out that the President should be given credit for sustained economic recovery, the beginnings of deficit control, the confirmation of conservatives on the Supreme Court, and landmark tax reform.
But it seems to me that it is Reagan's ability to bounce back that should cause historians to single him out for more than routine note. They would have to conclude that Reagan's summit achievements - which have already brought about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and appear to be setting the stage for strategic-nuclear-arms reductions - are sufficient to make him a significant President.
Other recent Presidents have failed to show Reagan's resilience. President Johnson was bogged down to the end by the Vietnam war; President Nixon left under the dark cloud of Watergate; and President Carter never recovered from domestic problems that plagued his administration at midterm and the hostage crisis that stayed with him during the final months of his administration.
Those pondering Reagan's ranking among US presidents will doubtless ask, ``What became of the `evil empire' that had been his view of the Soviet Union in the early days of his administration?''
Of course, the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost changed the Soviet picture. But the President obviously revised his estimate of the Soviets. The ``evil empire,'' he told a reporter in Moscow, referred to ``another time, another era.''
History will have to note that Reagan was able to revise his thinking in light of new circumstances.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.