The White House roller coaster

When George Washington was chosen to be first president, the new republic sang, to the tune of ''God Save the King'':

Joy to our native land,

Let every heart expand,

For Washington's at hand

Washington himself knew better. He understood that anybody who could be ''first in the hearts of his countrymen'' was also eligible to be last. Or, as he put it with characteristic moderation: ''To please everybody is impossible.''

This is the perennial lesson of the second year in the White House. At the inauguration, even your enemies love you. After a year, even your friends are criticizing you - especially your friends.

Wall Street, in exchange for the President's unfailing consideration, has given Reaganomics a vote of limited confidence, keeping the interest rates high and the stock market low, almost as if a Democrat were in the White House.

The Moral Majority is busy expressing second thoughts about Mr. Reagan - for instance, on the issue of abortion.

Howard Phillips and the Conservative Caucus are complaining about Mr. Reagan's appointments - the men around him, if not yet the man himself.

Neoconservative intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, are not exactly saying the President is soft on communism. But he is certainly not aggressive enough to please them.

In general, the charge is that Mr. Reagan has moved from the right toward the center.

Those with a long memory - four years is an eon to the blink of TV - will recall that Jimmy Carter, after a year in office, was accused by his friends of moving from the left toward the center.

At about this point in the game, Franklin D. Roosevelt was becoming infamous as ''that man in the White House.''

Harry Truman, who succeeded to the White House with a popularity poll reading of 87 percent, dropped to 23 percent, prompting him to remark with considerable understatement: ''A president cannot always be popular.''

William Howard Taft, one of the most endearing people to be elected president , remarked in sorrow and amazement after the honeymoon was over: ''There are so many people in the country who don't like me. Without knowing much about me, they don't like me.''

John Adams, a tougher person, met the sophomore slump with less dismay. ''When I was a young man,'' he wrote, ''I courted Popularity. I found her but a coy mistress, and I soon deserted her.'' He added a little recklessly: ''Our ancestors, the puritans, were a most unpopular set of men, yet the world owes all the liberty it possesses to them.''

Most presidents, as they have gotten further from the puritans, have drawn less satisfaction from being hissed. Lyndon Johnson loved the roar of the crowd. He was, in his own way, as tough as Adams. But when the crowd turned against him , it broke his heart.

There were historical reasons. Johnson became identified with the Vietnam war he had not begun but could not end. Still, public fickleness does not require a reason - just the rhythm of overexpectation and inevitable disappointment.

Every new president comes on the scene as if the country had just been born again. Upon his head we lay no crown - only every conceivable hope that has ever been associated with the American Dream.

Then, at the end of the first year, we count up every promise not kept and ask: What happened? We accuse the man in the White House of cutting himself off from the people who elected him. We blame him for being too strong - or for not being strong enough. We make sneak attacks on his wife, his children, or even his dog.

If a new president is supposed to be our saviour, a year later he is our scapegoat. We hold him responsible for everything but the weather.

Ronald Reagan is still thought of as a decent man. He is still admired for his ''communications skills.'' We will certainly use up several other scapegoats before we get to him. But if democracy in action has a cruel and terrifying aspect, it is this ritual of presidential reappraisal.

Too often reappraisal appears as the will to tear down what one has raised up. Unalloyed enthusiasm on inauguration day, rampant skepticism a year later. But where are the moods in between - those steady, unexcited periods when the job can get done?

Patience, as Tocqueville noted, is not a word you are apt to overuse in describing American democracy. We may vote for a president only once in four years, but we keep ratifying (or not ratifying) that vote constantly. It is a marvelous system for keeping a tyrant off balance -- and sometimes a good man too.

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