WE are going through a bleak period in the history of the White House, and there is probably more negative news to come as Congress digs into the inanities, and perhaps illegalities, that some of the President's men have committed. But a cool dash of perspective may not be out of line here amid all the handwringing and caterwauling.
First of all, there is nothing wrong with the state of the country. People are disappointed in President Reagan; some feel betrayed. But they are not overcome by the kind of hopelessness that would erode the country's institutions or impair onward motion.
Second of all, there is nothing wrong with the system in the United States. It is the system, after all, that has caught out the rascals and brought down in disgrace those who sought to circumvent principle and the rule of law. True, the executive branch of government goofed in a monumental way, but Congress is moving with careful dispatch to do its job, the press is worrying away at the strands of scandal, and the courts in due time will mete out punishment to those who have erred.
Third of all, there is nothing wrong with the presidency. The Tower Commission has pinpointed deficiencies in the management of the present incumbent. Serious flaws have been uncovered in the operating methods of a rogue National Security Council staff. But the errors are being corrected, and the office of the presidency, which somehow manages to survive with remarkable resiliency the flaws and failings of particular incumbents, is stable.
The real casualty is President Ronald Reagan, for it is not at all clear what verdict history will now bestow on him.
We should be clear what it is that has cast a terrible shadow over his presidential performance. It is not his ideology, which the country seems generally to have supported. It is not his personal charm, which still seems to hold many of his supporters, despite his present difficulties. What is at issue is his competence to manage his governmental team.
President Carter was faulted by many for micro-managing. By contrast, President Reagan is being faulted for abdication of management. His philosophy has been to install good people around him and let them manage. That may work when the people are superior. It is disastrous when they are second-raters.
From the ashes of political disaster, there are emerging some positive signs. Gone are the Norths, the McFarlanes, the Poindexters, the Regans. Instead the President has turned to men such as Frank Carlucci, and Howard Baker, and John Tower, and Brent Scowcroft. By the time this column appears in print there may be more upgrading.
In the speech the President is scheduled to give tonight, there may be reference to this housecleaning. There needs to be additional action.
The President needs to tell the American people that his judgment was at fault in sending arms to Iran; as of a few days ago, it was not clear the President had reached that point.
The President needs to assure his citizens that he is assertive, vital, in control. Evidence of this would be prudent, but speedy, response to the latest initiative from Mikhail Gorbachev on arms control.
And the President needs to repair the administration's tattered credibility in a crucial area - its accountability to the citizens by whose authority it rules. It is this arrogant contempt for accountability that got the President's men in trouble.
In some other democracies, a prime minister may face almost daily questioning in parliament. In Washington, Mr. Reagan has sometimes dallied three months between press conferences.
A weekly press conference would force him to take control of the issues, and to demonstrate accountability on a regular basis to a questioning public.