While lesser mortals might have been tired, grumpy and uncomfortable after an operation like President Reagan's, the commander in chief, as portrayed by the White House is "champing at the bit" to go back to riding the range and running the country.

Reporters have heard even the starkest of medical news sweetened with word of the president's vigor, his good humor, his "spectacular" recovery -- all efforts of the White House to maintain the president's political capital and reassure the world that he is in control.

To be fair, of course, the White House has also been so forthcoming about details that some television viewers -- uncomfortable about color diagrams of colon models -- have suggested that even Ronald Reagan deserves some medical privacy or a few euphemisms like "the president's plumbing."

But with the stark realities of Reagan's illness has come a good deal of cheerleading from the White House, so much that reporters covering the medical updates have begun to refer to them as "the daily superlative."

For example: On the day the president decided to stay for surgery after a large polyp was found in his lower intestine, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said: "The president is in good spirits, and, as usual, he is certainly equipped to handle whatever comes his way. I think he's anxious to be back in the saddle again."

One day after the operation, Speakes quoted the president's chief surgeon, Dr. Dale Oller, as saying that the president's "vitals are rock solid" and that he has "the internal workings of a 40-year-old.

"He looks great on the outside, and he can now attest he looks great on the inside," Speakes quoted Oller as saying.

At the second briefing that day, Speakes told reporters that the president had "an excellent day" and corrected those who thought that Nancy Reagan brought the president a picture of John Wayne on horseback. "That was Duke Reagan . . . " Speakes explained, not Duke Wayne.

Also Reagan is "champing at the bit to do a little bit more than the doctors want him to do."

On July 15, Oller was quoted as saying the president continued to progress "superbly" even though later that day he would learn that the tumor in his colon was malignant.

But if that Monday was a day of ominous news, toward the end of last week, photos and photo opportunities began to bolster the growing boosterism. On July 18, virtually every major newspaper used a White House photo taken the day before of the president throwing back his head and sharing a joke with Vice President Bush and chief of staff Donald Regan.

However, Speakes said yesterday that the White House released two other photographs at the same time, both showing the president looking more serious -- pointing a finger in one and reading a newspaper in another. But Speakes said virtually every newspaper he saw used the photograph of the president laughing.

"It was not a White House P.R. gimmick," he said.

On July 18, the president and Mrs. Reagan appeared at their hospital window, waving for the cameras and giving the high sign.

"I wonder whether the readers and viewers take it seriously," said Sam Donaldson, veteran White House reporter with ABC News, whose views are shared by a number in the White House press corps. "I see it as simply PR, puffery. I thought it was great when he came to the window, but clearly that man is not raring to go. He can't even talk yet."

Despite this opinion, Donaldson said that as a journalist he simply puts Speakes' comments on the air, hoping the public realizes who is speaking and the possible motives.

"I am no filter whatsoever," he said. "The message just gets hot, straight and through, just like they want it to."

During the long watch at Bethesda Naval Hospital, one press briefing on Saturday, July 13, became so tempestuous that Speakes called it a "circus."

The encounter came when the White House spokesman released copies of the letter transferring power from Reagan to Bush while the president was under anesthesia. Speakes had the letter passed out to reporters but refused to read it for the cameras.

So television correspondents Donaldson, Chris Wallace of NBC and Bill Plante of CBS sat in their front-row seats and began reading the letter into their various cameras. The noise of all those stentorian voices understandably provided too much competition for Speakes, who interrupted his briefing and began complaining about the television intrusion.

With what one reporter described as his "kindergarten teacher look," Speakes said: "You are going to have to establish some ground rules among yourselves or this will look like the Amal press conference. It already does."

This reference to a press conference with the American hostages from the hijacked TWA flight provoked Helen Thomas of United Press International, who said: "You knew you were on TV and you should have let the public know what was in the letter."

"He doesn't care about the public," boomed Donaldson.

"Sam, do you want to state that again?" Speakes said.

Donaldson tempered his comment ever so slightly in his reply: "I don't think you care about the public, if you tease the public which is watching by saying you have a letter from the president of the United States but you won't read it ."

The press room at the naval hospital, which one journalistic wag dubbed the "polypburo," was located in a ward where psychiatric patients are housed. One sign near the reporters' portable computers read "Psychiatric Watch Unit" -- a juxtaposition that many reporters viewed as a sick White House joke.

But the location also provided a little much-needed comic relief in the long, tense hours waiting for medical news of the president:

Thomas Oliphant of The Boston Globe reported striking up a conversation with two corpsmen one day in the naval hospital cafeteria. They said they had been working all day with a paranoid patient who believes that the military, the press and the Martians are coming to get him. They were taking him for an indoor stroll Saturday afternoon (July 13) when he and his bodyguards passed a hospital window. Outside they saw an army of guards and a parking lot full of TV mobile units with satellite dishes and giraffe-like appurtenances that beam messages to receptors elsewhere.

"This guy's face just lit up with this smile of vindication," Oliphant recalled, laughing. "And he just said 'See?' "