THE question now is whether the President can extricate himself from this Iran-Israel-Nicaragua entanglement. Sen. Sam Nunn says he hopes so, hopes that ``we can get this ox out of the ditch,'' so that government won't come to a standstill. But he isn't too sure that the President will be able to negotiate this crisis as he has done lesser ones in the past. Sen. Alan Simpson is more sanguine. He stresses the President's ``enormous popularity'' and predicts that within a matter of a few weeks polls will show Mr. Reagan riding high again with the public.
This is the nature of the dialogue among the responsible leaders in Washington today - those who realize that there will be only one President for the next two years and that will be President Reagan. And both Mr. Nunn, a Democrat, and Mr. Simpson, a Republican, join in not wanting to see a beaten-down President who can no longer function effectively. They know that the losers are the American people.
There is, however, an attitude among too many people in Washington that can only be described as a kind of perverse delight in seeing the mighty fall.
There was an undisguised elation here among a great many people that accompanied the undoing of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. And now once again one senses this kind of joyful anticipation - among some journalists, many members of Congress, and within the bureaucracy - as Ronald Reagan comes under the kind of battering criticism that could make him ineffective.
Against what some have called a ``breaking-of-the-President'' preoccupation, there is, of course, a very formidable force: Ronald Reagan himself.
Yes, already there are some in this city who are suggesting that what is emerging is ``Irangate,'' a scandal that will resemble Watergate and with similar consequences to all involved. But Mr. Nixon's downfall came from what was widely judged a failure of character - a flaw in his moral fiber. In the present case, the extent of the President's knowledge is not yet known.
The charge against Reagan is that he blundered badly in approving arms shipments to Iran at a time when his foreign policy prohibited this. He continues to defend this move, albeit less and less strongly, as he concedes that others might see the matter differently.
In addition, of course, we now have this disclosure that some of the payment from that arms sale to Iran got into the hands of the Nicaraguan contras by means of a maverick lieutenant colonel in the National Security Council.
The story that this colonel was the sole player in this part of the caper is hard to buy. But the likelihood is that Reagan in the congressional hearings will be found remiss in his failure to keep close tabs on what was going on. This certainly won't help his presidential stature.
But a ``clean'' Reagan - and the prospect is that he will remain clean - will be hard to destroy. He has long had a love affair with the American public. This will stand him in good stead.
We must remember that both Nixon and Johnson were vulnerable personally. They had been able to roll up big majorities - but people, by and large, were never too fond of them.
The President's last press conference provided an excellent example of how his popularity helps him when he is in trouble and under attack. When a reporter asked of Reagan's arms dealing with Iran, ``How can you justify such duplicity?,'' and another reporter charged him with being on the defensive all evening, one could almost hear people all around the country crying out: ``Hey, the President may have made a mistake - but quit kicking him around.''
The reporters may have thought they beat Reagan down that night. What they didn't realize was that they were playing into the hands of this popular President by stepping beyond the bounds of impartial questioning.
So it is that Reagan faces the greatest crisis of his presidency. He seems to be starting out right - by trying to get all the facts out and by making changes among his advisers. With continued candor and with all those people pulling for him, he may indeed soon begin to put this all behind him.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.