Reagan's future

RONALD Reagan has taken up the presidency again, riding on a predictable wave of national affection and buttressed by his own natural ebullience. He has always been an upbeat person, upbeat about himself and upbeat about his country's achievements and potential.

A couple of well-known lines draw the distinction between the optimist and the pessimist: ``Two men looked out through prison bars; one saw mud, the other saw stars.''

Ronald Reagan has always been the one who looked upward. Even from the recent confines of his hospital room, he projected the same cheeriness he exhibited in 1981 when he was shot by a would-be assassin.

On the earlier occasion, as he was about to undergo surgery he quipped that he sure hoped his doctors were Republicans. This time around he joked about getting together with hospital staff for tennis, and during his Saturday radio address he cracked up even himself with a line about not having as much stomach for a certain kind of action.

This confident good humor will stand him in good stead in the weeks ahead as reporters and politicians and foreign leaders analyze his actions and demeanor for signs of weakness.

As a friend put it the other day: ``We now know more about Ronald Reagan's insides than we know about our own.'' But if there has been extraordinarily detailed reporting about Mr. Reagan's physical condition, his mood and mental outlook are important intangibles that cannot be accurately measured by the assembled observers.

We cannot gloss over the implications for the United States and the world of a situation that might incapacitate the President before the end of his second term. But a couple of factors should help allay alarm. One is the President's own confident outlook.

Another, perhaps less remarked upon, is a more confident mood in the country at large. Some call it a return to patriotism; others a newfound Americanism. Somehow, Americans seem to feel better about their country today than they did a few years ago, and about the economic and political system under which it operates. If this is resulting in new national maturity, rather than tub-thumping braggadocio, this is all to the good.

Americans have been through some troubling and self-doubting times. There was the Vietnam war, the oil shortage, Watergate, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet rape of Afghanistan, the latter two problems coinciding during President Carter's tenure in the White House.

Although Jimmy Carter was as decent a man as has ever lived in the White House, his presidency was not a high point in the history of American self-confidence.

President Reagan's supporters will contend that their man has turned things around and stimulated the new mood of self-confidence. His critics will answer that this new mood is only coincidental to his presidency. Whether it is Mr. Reagan's doing or not, the fact is that the US seems better poised for new challenge. It is, for instance, coming to grips with the history of the Vietnam war, redressing the shameful treatment of Vietnam veterans, and perhaps discovering new unity in the process.

There are problems aplenty on the national agenda. There is the relationship with the Soviet Union. Mr. Reagan is to meet with the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, this fall. There is the lack of progress on arms control talks. There are problems in Central America over US aid to the Nicaraguan ``contras.'' There is the question of tax reform, and bigger and more immediately than that, the federal deficit and the difficulty of agreeing upon a budget.

But as a recuperating President tackles these problems anew, there is no need for dismay and defeatism.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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