Do we push our presidents too hard to be `strong'?

Every four years, it seems, we run a popularity contest to decide which personality -- which ``image'' of leadership -- we voters want to decorate the White House. Sometime between elections we buckle down belatedly, alas, to the issues when history confronts us with events which show no respect for a president's ``image,'' testing instead his character, and ours. John Kennedy's charm ran aground on the Bay of Pigs.

Lyndon Johnson, aspiring to be a second FDR, was mired on the Ho Chi Minh Trail while moving toward the Great Society.

Now Ronald Reagan has stumbled over the cemetery headstones of SS troops in West Germany.

What do these otherwise separate cases share in common? In all three instances we elected a candidate because he seemed stronger, tougher, more decisive than his opponent. Then history presented him -- and us -- with a situation in which his very strength became a trap.

If Kennedy didn't go ahead with his Cuban invasion, if Johnson failed to escalate the military enterprise in Vietnam, if Reagan changed his mind about Bitburg, their revised decisions would be seen as weakness, according to the standards by which we chose them.

This is a classic dilemma of American politics. And what confusion it causes! Thus the majority of Americans told pollsters that President Reagan is wrong to go to Bitburg. But about the same majority believed that the President shouldn't reverse his decision -- shouldn't ``back down.''

Gerald Ford spoke for the majority: ``Every now and again you have to stand up and do what you planned.''

It is as if we voters train our presidents by the credo, ``Better wrong and strong than right and weak.''

We, the strongest nation in the world, live in fear that our good nature (as we see it) will be mistaken for weakness.

The more tangled the times, the more simple and positive and quick-acting we ask our presidents to be.

President Reagan's popularity is based at least partly on his image of being in charge. There is little that is ambiguous or halfway about his public posture -- hardly an if, and, or but in sight. This we have come to define as ``leadership'' -- the style we want in the White House in the '80s.

By contrast, Jimmy Carter was seen as vacillating and doubtful when he ran against Mr. Reagan, and Walter Mondale was perceived as ``caving in'' to pressure groups. Both knew more than Mr. Reagan, but Mr. Reagan knew what he thought, and we showed confidence in his confidence by electing him.

President Reagan and his advisers, recognizing our hunger for certainty in uncertain times, got the message: Never waffle.

In more than just politics, there is a kind of consensus that we should act as if we are certain, as if by acting out certainty we might make it true.

Yuppies ``go for it'' -- as single-minded as Andrew Carnegie. Parents show ``tough love,'' as if once again father and mother know best. Fundamentalist sects call for more rather than less dogma and win converts by their very rigidity.

To say ``I'm not sure'' in almost any situation is to be judged as ``soft.'' To say ``I was wrong'' is to risk ruling oneself out of the game altogether.

And so Reagan comes to Bitburg, locked in by the fashion for certainty he has created for us, and we have created for him.

The danger is that our present craving for confidence, demonstrated to the point of militancy, can involve more than a cemetery ceremony. What if a president, superbly equipped with nuclear missiles, gets locked into his obligation to ``show strength'' and just can't find a way to ``back down''?

Once it was thought of as the ultimate strength to say ``I was wrong'' or ``I'm not sure.'' Out of consideration for our leaders (and ourselves) we must reestablish this equally American tradition of modesty if we do not want the world dominated by polarized superpowers whose insecurities force them into more and more aggressive displays of certainty.

It may be remembered that our strongest president was also our humblest -- the one most ready to say ``I was wrong'' or ``I'm not sure,'' without weakness. The question is, would we of the certainty-infatuated '80s vote for a man rather short on ``image'' who insisted on saying, ``I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors''?

Would we still have the sense to elect Abraham Lincoln? A Wednesday and Friday column

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