HOW well I remember the fall day in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. A college student then, I was studying in Spain. The Madrid Hilton had an election night bash for Americans in town, and we all stayed up late to watch the returns. Once the outcome was clear, I walked the streets till dawn, sure the world was coming to an end. Now, slightly mellowed but still a staunch liberal, I have a secret to confess. I've grown fond of the man, and will even be a little sad to see him go. My fellow Democrats and feminists will stone me for this, but like Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, I've grown accustomed to his face in the Oval Office. He embodied the spirit and style appropriate to a chief executive. It was easy, all too easy, to like Mr. Reagan the man or the myth, even if you disagreed with almost everything he did in practice.
So I will join the ranks of Americans who will wistfully watch the changing of the guard on Jan. 20.
George Bush, Reagan's loyal understudy, won't be that different from Reagan except he won't deliver his lines nearly as well. And, let's face it, stage presence is half the battle in the modern presidency, ever since Reagan turned it into the highest level of performance art.
Reagan won over his hard-hearted critics. The first thing he did that made us look twice was fire the air-traffic controllers who dared to strike. Here was a leader who wasn't afraid to take a strong stand - a welcome change from Jimmy Carter. Shortly after that came the assassination attempt. Could any of us fail to warm to a man who could joke at such a time? Even dyed-in-the-wool Democrats had to laugh, had to admire his grace under pressure, Ernest Hemingway's definition of courage.
He also seemed temporarily to tame the terrorist world. Most of Europe was horrified when Reagan decided to bomb Libyan bases in 1986. I remember being in a British post office when a woman said to me, ``Your president's started World War III!'' But I, like many Americans, secretly cheered for a man who wasn't afraid to give Colonel Qaddafi as good as he got.
I was also in London on the December night the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed, covering the event for CBS News. The thrill that shook the world that day was in part because of the statesmanship, the majesty, the solemnity with which he and Mikhail Gorbachev (also a master showman) signed the documents. Even we jaded journalists felt something resembling awe. The spectacle looked as important as it actually was.
It is so easy to underestimate Reagan. That's what snobby liberals on both coasts have been doing for decades.
He seems laughably simple, not of the stuff from which presidents are made. He doesn't have the intellect of a Lincoln, Kennedy, or even Truman; he lacked the hard-work ethic of, say, Carter; he had none of the single-minded ambition of Johnson or Nixon.
What he has, in abundance, are superb political instincts. Reagan knows how to reach out and touch the hearts of the American people like no other president since, perhaps, Franklin Roosevelt. He has more charm than any save, perhaps, Kennedy.
On the day the Challenger crew was blown out of the sky, who but he could say with enough conviction to comfort us, ``They have touched the face of God.'' It didn't matter that he didn't write the line, but only that he said it so well.
Another aspect of the man I had to like was his absence of malice. He couldn't bring himself to fire Edwin Meese, when everyone was calling for his head, for no other reason than loyalty to an old friend. A laudable emotion, surely, even if misguided in that case.
We could forgive his gaffes, his naps, his long vacations, his substitutions of Sam Donaldson's shouted questions under the helicopter for regular White House press conferences.
They became familiar and almost endearing after a while, only because he seemed to have things cheerfully under control. Under Reagan, we traded reality for illusion without a second thought.
The deficit, the homeless, an endangered environment, outlandish defense spending, an uncaring social agenda: These may be Reagan's lasting legacy to America, destined to dry up the confidence he inspired in us in the 1980s. They will surely be part of Mr. Bush's task to redress in the 1990s. But they wash like water off a duck's back over Reagan's place in our hearts.
So, for now, let's clap for a pretty good show as that cowboy rides off into the sunset, and save the reckoning for later.