ALL the polls show that the American people are tired of the sordid Iran-contra debacle and are ready to move on. It was on this point that President Reagan counted this week when he addressed the nation, stressing the challenge of the future rather than the anguish of the past.
It was probably a politically intelligent approach.
The President spoke of the need to get his nominee to the Supreme Court confirmed and installed.
He spoke of the need for budgetary responsibility.
He aired his hopes for democracy in Nicaragua and pledged himself anew to support the contras.
He warned of lurking dangers in the Persian Gulf - dangers, although he did not mention it, from that same demonic Iranian regime to which he had secretly sent arms.
And he spoke hopefully of the prospect of a pact with the Soviet Union that would see nuclear arms reduced.
He did not have a great deal to say about the Iran-contra affair. He faulted himself for being ``stubborn'' in pursuing, as he put it delicately, a policy that ``went astray.'' He did not concede that the policy of sending arms to Iran was inept from its inception.
He said he was ``mad as a hornet'' because he had been kept in the dark about the diversion of Iranian arms profits to the contras. But he did not say that if he had been told about it, he would have strongly disapproved and would have stopped it.
It was a speech that will probably get him by. The public wants to put Iran-contra behind it. The public still holds Mr. Reagan in affectionate regard, even though they think he has stumbled very badly. The public knows that the last months of the Reagan administration will pass quickly, and they do not want to see their President humiliated during that time.
But in a way it was, as one viewer put it, too bad that Ronald Reagan didn't give the speech that Maine's Sen. George Mitchell gave as the Democratic response.
Senator Mitchell delivered an ode to the rule of law. He conceded patriotism to those who had erred, but he correctly demanded from them adherence to principle. He reminded us that everybody in the United States is accountable, and nobody - even those who briefly live or work in the White House - is exempt from the law's provisions. We could have done with a little of that from Reagan.
Mr. Mitchell made a striking point. He suggested that what was important now was not so much the Reagan administration's agenda for the next 17 months as the agenda for the rest of this century. Clearly, he was focusing on President Reagan's opportunity to set us on the path of arms reduction that would continue into the 21st century.
As far as Reagan's own place in history is concerned, he will be badly criticized for formulating bad policy on Iran, and for being unaware that his staff was out of control on Nicaragua. Although those stains cannot be erased, history will treat him more gently if his administration's record can be climaxed with an arms control pact that will make the world more stable and less dangerous.
Chopping wood and riding his horse on his California vacation, and carefully avoiding any questions about Iran-contra, Reagan can probably recoup politically. His ability to bounce back is legendary, and those who have underestimated it have been proved woefully wrong.
The larger question is not Ronald Reagan's political standing. It is whether the legacy he leaves the American people at the end of his presidency will have made them more secure, and their world a safer place.