By Reason of Inanity

CAPITOL IDEAS

THE NEW YORK TIMES reports that President Reagan was "flustered" by the findings of the Tower Commission. That should put the president in a very small minority. The commission's report is thorough, authoritative, and damning, but startling is one word that does not apply.

The Tower Commission merely confirmed and documented what all of us knew and too many preferred to dismiss for some time: that Mr. Reagan is a mental absentee; more than detached, he is disconnected from reality and the Administration he inhabits.

Far from consigning Mr. Reagan to ruin, therefore, the report of the special review board ensures his continued viability. That the panel found no proof of criminal complicity, indeed, nothing worse to say about the president than the obvious, bodes well for America's favorite lame duck.

For another president, in another political milieu, a comparable indictment might prove terminal. In a parliamentary system, it surely would bring a vote of no confidence and a new government. The Tower Commission presented sufficient evidence of malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance for Congress to remove Mr. Reagan from office, but where there is no will, the commission leaves a gaping way out.

AMERICANS FIND THIS president's absence of mind somehow endearing, his malignant neglect of office no great cause for alarm.

This is the same man whose gaffes and misstatements are so routine that they have virtually vanished from the news. This is the same man who lapsed into dementia during his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984, the same man whose thoughts wandered down the Pacific Coast Highway and got lost during debate two.

This is the same man who won anyway, dispelling fears of senility on the strength of one well-delivered one-liner.

This is the same man whose aimless foreign policy bred disaster in Beirut, the same man who flaunted his comprehension gap and nearly sold the farm at Iceland.

This is the same man who, according to his former budget director, fails to grasp even the basic arithmetic of the federal budget. This is the same man whose former chief of staff proclaimed himself part of a "shovel brigade," perpetually cleaning up after the boss. This is the same man who nevertheless placed his trust in a janitorial incompetent, someone more adept at grave-digging than damage control.

NOW IT'S HOWARD H. Baker Jr.'s turn to wield the shovel, but to paraphrase one of the president's favorite homilies, it shouldn't take him long to find a pony beneath all the muck.

The Tower Commission produced no smoking gun with the president's fingerprints on it, nothing implicating Mr. Reagan in the apparently illegal diversion of profits to the Contras. Unless such evidence materializes--and that seems unlikely--Ronald Reagan is not guilty by reason of inanity, free from impeachment, destined to serve the remainder of his term with a measure of general affection. As that realization sinks in, the president's furies will slowly abandon the pursuit, and the crisis atmosphere will clear.

Americans are a charitable lot, and they will forgive this president his sins, even if they revise their opinion of him. They will forgive, if they haven't already forgotten, his self-contradictions or outright lies about trading arms for hostages, not to mention the policy itself (although history may be less generous).

THE CONGRESS THAT dreaded having to act again on evidence of presidential criminality heaves a sigh of relief. The inquiries will proceed, but without the same supreme suspense, without the same compelling uncertainty as to what they might mean for the president. The story now primarily concerns a cast of lesser characters and a trail of missing money. And even where the facts are clear, the legal ramifications are not.

Enquiring people have been clamoring to learn what the president knew and when he knew it. Now we have a conclusive answer: as far as the policy toward Iran is concerned, the president can't remember, others can't agree, and the record sheds little light on the matter.

In the days leading up to the Tower report's release, the White House braced the public for a damaging series of shocks, art-fully cultivating an anti-climax. In the aftermath of the Tower Commission, the White House has acted decisively to exploit the moment. Donald Reagan was a deserving scapegoat fatted on months of scorn and derision, all of which he now takes with him, away from the White House. His replacement, former Senate Majority Leader Baker, fills the void with credibility, goodwill, and a strong excuse for everyone to let bygones be bygones.

When Mr. Reagan addresses the nation Wednesday, there is one more thing that he can do to take the steam out of the steamroller that has been bearing down on him. He can offer the people an expression of genuine remorse. Even cleverly feigned regret will do.

Since November, Mr. Reagan has been engaged in a tug-of-war with political adversaries and determined truth-seekers. Should the president now let go of his end, the rope will go slack, and his antagonists will land in a heap. What Mr. Reagan forfeits in false pride he would gain in popular sympathy.

Much more than the truth, that sentimentality has always been Mr. Reagan's best defense.