THE presidents of the world's oldest and newest democracies - the United States and those of the East bloc - have utterly different emotional contexts at the outset of 1990. But they share a similar leadership challenge: to tell their people the truth about the condition of their nations. A statement of reality is a leader's first responsibility.
President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia discharged this duty brilliantly in his New Year's Day address: ``For 40 years you have heard on this day from the mouths of my predecessors, in a number of variations, the same thing: how our country is flourishing, how many more millions of tons of steel we have produced, how we are all happy, how we believe in our Government and what beautiful prospects are opening ahead of us. I assume you have not named me to this office so that I, too, should lie to you.
``Our country is not flourishing .... The state, which calls itself a state of workers, is humiliating and exploiting them instead.... The worst of it is that we live in a spoiled moral environment. We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another.... Freedom and democracy, after all, mean joint participation and shared responsibility....If we realize this, then hope will return to our hearts.''
Double-mindedness - saying one thing while thinking another - is as destabilizing in government as in an individual.
The entire world feels relief at the lifting of the great cloak of lies, the fog of a failed ideology, from the East bloc. But it could be tragic to risk the gains of the past year by overstating what optimism of itself can do.
Democracy has its own rigors, as Hungary, a front-runner in the East bloc democratic derby, is learning. As Monitor correspondent William Echikson reports from Budapest, Hungarian politicians ``are locked in seemingly endless squabbles, presenting vague programs and blurry ideologies, while the economy continues to stagnate and living standards decline.'' He quotes a leading editor: ``People are upset. They feel so uncertain; after 40 years of being told what to think, they are not sure how to deal with this new responsibility. There's anti-Semitism, there's anti-Romanianism, there's anti-Gypsy feeling.''
Now for Mr. Bush.
The US president can give a fairly good report to the American people on the state of the nation this month. The economy, key to any president's approval rating, remains steady: It may not be anything to crow about, but neither is it crashing. Bush has not promised much of a peace dividend from the easing of tensions with the Soviet Union. It would be premature to do so.
The attempt to flush Manuel Noriega out of Panama has proved vexing. The rough search of the Nicaraguan embassy deserved the apology Bush gave. To apprehend Noriega for drug dealing could be at least a start at curbing the drug cartel's lawlessness.
The Panama raid is criticized for its clumsiness. Military initiatives cost lives - sons and sweethearts and brothers among the troops, children and other innocents among civilians. Our noblest rhetorical purposes can have their price. But at least in the Panama instance Mr. Bush kept his description of what the administration was about within the plausible. This was not the case with the Reagan administration's armed exertions in Beirut, Grenada, and Libya.
The American public seems to like Mr. Bush. His first-year approval ratings are a little higher than Ronald Reagan's but ``just above average when compared to all of his postwar Republican and Democratic predecessors,'' according to the public opinion report of The American Enterprise, a new publication of the American Enterprise Institute.
Bush, unlike Reagan, has majority support among blacks. He is equally popular in all regions. His party continues to build its lead over the Democrats among 18- to 29-year-olds, the political base of the future.
Dips in public confidence in the economy usually drag down a president's popularity. This was the case in critical elections such as 1974, 1980, and 1982. If the slow but steady economic expansion of the past half dozen years continues, GOP congressional losses this fall should be minimal and Bush's reelection in 1992 almost certain.
Bush need exaggerate nothing. He need not emulate the outgoing manner of Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush is secure. The American public is confident of its political system, while Gorbachev must exert tremendous energy to stay atop the economic, ideological, and nationalistic forces he would lead.