It was nighttime again in America. Dan Rather and CBS News crowned Ronald Reagan president of the United States, again, just after 8 o'clock last night, and about 52 minutes later Rather declared, "Walter Mondale has seen the light at the end of the tunnel -- and it's out." Life can be cruel, and so can anchormen.

ABC News called the election for Reagan 13 minutes after CBS did and NBC News, walking on tippytoe all night long, waited until 8:30 to announce what everybody already knew. The most television-intensive election in American history ended with a TV election night in which the networks pulled out all their news superstars and their most glittery animated graphics to tell viewers that what had been predicted for weeks had happened at last.

At times, it almost began to seem real. As the numbers danced and the bar graphs surged, the whole TV political year flashed before us -- Roger Mudd roughing up Gary Hart, Mario Cuomo wowing the Democratic Convention, Geraldine Ferraro reading from her husband's tax returns, endless shots of Ronald Reagan waving goodbye and putting his hand to his ear, the wild primary debates, the much less wild presidential and vice presidential debates, and all those commercials. Drawing the line at the heavens. And the bear, the bear! That poor old bear padding around the woods. If there was a bear.

If it wasn't startling, it was still exciting, at least on CBS, where Dan Rather was as wired as a fox terrier -- sore throat virus or no -- as he urged viewers to stay tuned "to see how big the Reagan win is." Often Dan could be seen presiding over a superimposed animated map of the United States that made it look as though he were playing war games with the 48 contiguous states as one after another they lit up in red for Reagan.

Or did Rather looming over his map look just a touch like an updated Michelangelo tableau of the Almighty hovering above his creation?

Things were exciting backstage, too, as the network news departments took turns accusing one another of either jumping the gun on projections or capitulating faint-heartedly to the rantings of rancorous congressmen upset about early calls and their effect on the vote in western states.

ABC News had made the loudest insistence that it would be on its best behavior, with division president Roone Arledge promising in advance that no race would be so much as "characterized" in a state where the polls had not yet closed, and ABC took bows all day about it. But then ABC News was first to declare, shortly after 6:30 p.m., that New Hampshire had gone to Reagan. This prompted jeering from the other networks, who noted that the majority of polls in New Hampshire would not be closed until 8 p.m.

The other networks were upset with Arledge for "grandstanding," as one network spokesman put it. They were particularly ticked off when Arledge was given the Tim Wirth seal of approval earlier in the day. The chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, who likes to poke his nose into broadcasting as far as possible, said ABC "deserves the congratulations of all of us" for its announcement. An aide to Wirth said "the ideal" would be for the networks not even to go on the air with any results until 11 p.m. when the polls had closed in California.

Ridiculous to the point of being idiotic, scowled sources at the other networks. Said one executive, "Everybody knows there's no point in holding back. What are we doing? Pandering to Tim Wirth?" For all of ABC's declarations of its civic virtue, NBC was the network that held back the most, so much so that it waddled itself right out of the running. An NBC News spokesman said, "We're being cautious and respectable. We knew we weren't going to be first because we were holding out for the raw vote."

Just after 10 p.m., Wirth issued yet another statement, grumping that network coverage "fell far short of the restraint that I had hoped for and that Congress had asked for." Wirth planted another smooch on ABC News and on the Cable News Network (CNN) for their restraint, but scored CBS and NBC for showing "a real disregard for the integrity of the electoral process" with their naughty projections. Wirth claimed that voters in his own district fled waiting lines at the polls when news of the network projections reached them.

"So ABC News, by calling the election 10 minutes later, shows real integrity?" asked an executive from another network. "Oh, God!" The controversy was beginning to take on farcical tones. There was scoffing of a "public relations coup for Roone Arledge."

When he came on the air at 6:30, Rather gave viewers the big pitch about voting and then said there were "indications" that "a substantial win for Ronald Reagan may, may be borne out if voting trends don't change by the time all the polls have closed." From Reagan campaign headquarters in Los Angeles, reporter Bill Plante noted, "There's certainly no air of suspense around here." ABC was already giving viewers the news that Indiana, Kentucky and New Hampshire were in the Reagan column.

And though NBC was timid with the numbers, Chris Wallace, asked by anchor Tom Brokaw if there appeared to be "any cracks" in the Republican armor, said, "Absolutely not, Tom. If anything, it's going even better than expected."

As of 7:45, CBS had Reagan already winning 136 electoral votes, ABC gave him 133, and NBC played it meek and gave Reagan 119. At 8, CBS gave 280 votes to Reagan, 10 more than were needed to win, ABC had it at 254 and NBC was way back there with 166. Earlier, White House chief of staff James Baker was being interviewed by Wallace on NBC and said that he'd stay around as long as NBC kept giving states to Reagan. "We don't give 'em, we just project 'em," said anchor Brokaw, but NBC wasn't even doing much of that.

This kind of behavior may earn the networks gold stars among testy congressmen but it seems naive and reactionary considering the technological wonders of the electronic age and of modern polling procedures. ABC news executive vice president David Burke, while defending the Arledge maneuvers, said yesterday from New York, "There's a lot of dancing on the head of a pin about this, but some people feel very strongly about the issue. The point is, we can't return to the day when we pressed our ears against an Atwater-Kent and heard crackly sounds until 2 o'clock in the morning."

As promised in advance, the animated graphic displays were -- well, animated and graphic among other things, but also bedazzling. CBS had the most picturesque, thanks to two "Dubner" machines that can take visual material and bend it, shape it, any way you want it. CBS had a gray, red and blue moving Rubik's cube to give state- by-state results, the most awesome map of any of the networks (NBC and ABC used old-fashioned background maps that looked clunky). This CBS map was a pip, all right, but so was a computer-composed "270" (for the necessary number of electoral votes) whose "2" grew redder and redder for Reagan and whose "0" showed barely a patch of blue for Mondale.

It was a hardware kind of night, but the network that stands out usually does so because of the human talent that occasionally crowds the pretty pictures off the air. ABC was dull except for David Brinkley, Sander Vanocur and Sam Donaldson. NBC was dull except for Chris Wallace and Roger Mudd. CBS was dull except for Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer ("Mr. and Mrs. CBS," as one house wag referred to them), Bill Moyers, Andy Rooney, Bill Plante, Bob Schieffer, Lesley Stahl, Bruce Morton, and all the rest of them.

Bill Moyers, the best network commentator by a huge margin, talks better than many journalists can write. He shocked Rather by telling him, during a discussion of white voting patterns in the South, "We're still a deeply racist country, and it's politically palatable again for white southerners to feel the way they did for a long time." Moyers bemoaned as "deeply disturbing" the new "dramatic racial polarization" and said, "It's one thing to be divided by an ideology and another to be divided on race."

Rather asked Moyers if he couldn't look on the positive side.

Moyers also made the most winning understatement of the evening: "Nothing we say tonight will encompass the whole truth."

Maybe Tim Wirth liked that.

If any words from the coverage are going to be engraved in stone, however, here's a nomination for the late-afternoon assessment of guest commentator John Anderson on the Cable News Network: "This election will be a lot closer than has been predicted."

An ABC News panel comprising Barbara Walters, Tom Wicker and George Will fell a little flat. Walters hung in there, but Wicker blustered and Will looked miffed, as if he'd been muddied by a bus splashing through a puddle. This trio grew more spirited as the night wore on. ABC and NBC were quicker than CBS to snare political celebrities like Jesse Jackson, Howard Baker, James Baker and Jerry Falwell. And while Rather listened to analysis at the top of each segment from Morton, ABC was giving out hard information: vote totals and projections.

Brinkley at one point referred to Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) as "the great baseball star of years past" but quickly corrected himself to "basketball." Later, Henry A. Kissinger was equally quick to correct an erroneous introduction of him by able anchor Peter Jennings. "I don't want President Reagan to have a heart attack," said Kissinger. "I was not presidential adviser to President Reagan." Jennings realized he had said Reagan instead of Nixon.

At about 9:13, NBC went to live shots of Reagan and Mrs. Reagan in a hotel room where they were watching the returns on TV. Unfortunately for NBC, the loudest TV set was tuned to CBS, where Rather was interviewing Jerry Falwell. That could be heard more clearly than Reagan.

As the evening wore on, Rather worked harder and harder at keeping up his enthusiasm and, entertainingly, got cornier and cornier with his characterizations of states and his dauntless urgings that viewers stay tuned. He showed a tinge of creeping Cronkitism when he said farewell to James Baker with, "Please give our very best to first lady Nancy Reagan. We hope she's feeling better after the last couple of days." Mrs. Reagan bopped her head during a nighttime bedroom fall.

The Mondale and, especially, the Ferraro speeches before midnight were moving conclusions to an exhausting and sometimes exhilarating political year, all of its best and worst moments transmitted on TV. Nearly as dramatic was Rather's long solo turn before the cameras last night, something on the order of a cross between a John Barrymore soliloquy and Mitch Snyder's hunger strike.

Brokaw sort of ambles through these things, and Jennings maintains his dignity, but Rather, afflicted with the television terrors that are always visited upon Number Ones, never relented for an instant. He did have one friendly relaxed moment just before 11 p.m. when informed by Stahl that a candidate known as "the Dan Rather of Toldeo, Ohio," had lost his bid for office. Rather said, "Well, I can relate to that . . . But if he is the Dan Rather of Toledo, he may have been beaten, but not defeated." Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer side by side are quite a powerful royal eyeful, by the way; in 1988, one can imagine them co-anchoring events like this, if Rather decides there's room behind his desk.

Late in the coverage Rather dipped into his trusty old down-home metaphor bag and declared, "If the day were a fish, Walter Mondale would throw it back in." If the night were a fish, CBS News could mount it on wood and put it on the wall as another trophy. There was more than one landslide in America last night.