It was the fourth quarter. We were down by, oh, about 500 billion points. We needed the Gipper. But what we got seemed more like a scab player.

Ronald Reagan didn't do much to calm a jittery nation or soothe a savage stock market last night. It was Reagan's chance to play a grandly conciliatory role and thus allay fears about the economy fired by a week of stock market flip-flops. But in his nationally televised news conference last night, the president seemed more pugnacious than magnanimous.

He appeared more concerned with defending his own policies than in binding up the nation's wounds. It was a depressingly disappointing performance. But it was not, as some might have feared, a debacle. Reagan fumbled the ball repeatedly yet could be said never to have completely dropped it.

Reagan news conferences always have their nerve-racking side. Perhaps it is just as well that he has so few (though if he had more, the anxieties wouldn't have so long to accumulate). Last night, stakes were higher than usual. If Reagan had seriously misspoken, not only would he embarrassedhimself and the viewing nation, but he could have delivered a hazardous jolt to an already electrified economy.

Wisely, Reagan sought to defuse the tension with an opening wisecrack: "Well, it seems like only yesterday," he said, a self-mocking reference to the fact that he hasn't had a live news conference since March. Last night's, as the networks all pointed out, was only his third this year.

Where he and his advisers seem seriously to have miscalculated was Reagan's combative, defensive approach. Repeatedly he spoke of some devious congressional "they" who were allegedly responsible for the economic problems. He had done nothing wrong. His policies were sound. It was "they" who had driven us to the brink of ruin with their profligacy.

It was not a gracious posture, and it did not become the president. He became a crybaby. He sounded paranoid. Ronald Reagan did not play Capt. Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny" (Humphrey Bogart did), but he sure sounded like him last night.

One thought of Queeg on the stand insisting that "they" -- his disloyal officers -- had taken the quart of strawberries he claimed was missing from the ship's mess. Reagan seemed on the verge of taking a couple of steel balls out of his pocket and rolling them around in his hand, the way Queeg did when hauled before the tribunal.

Reagan sends budgets up to Capitol Hill every year, he said, and "they never will even look at them." Rarely if ever has Ronald Reagan appeared more petulant and pouty. There was nothing reassuring about this. We expected him to come out with his sleeves rolled up and a prescription for heading off disaster -- instead he had his sleeves rolled up for yet another donnybrook with Congress, that big bully down the street.

Asked repeatedly if he would now reverse his long-stated opposition to a tax increase, Reagan compared his upcoming economic summit with congressional leaders to the union negotiations with studio bosses he conducted when head of the Screen Actors Guild -- and said he refused to tip his hand. He wouldn't blab any "strategy" beforehand. It sounded like an awfully adversarial stance with which to approach emergency bipartisan repairs.

Pressed by Bill Plante of CBS News to restate his position on taxes, Reagan said, "You're all trying to get me into saying what I am going to do when I sit down at the table with the other fellas." Now there was a "you" conspiring with the dread "they."

In fact, the press was overly insistent on the tax issue. It seemed a matter of pride on their part that they get Reagan to admit he'd have to modify his views. This was macho nonsense, and it didn't get anybody anywhere. There wasn't even a word about the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination until about 14 questions in. They just kept hitting Reagan with the tax thing.

So although Reagan may have behaved childishly, the press corps wasn't exactly postpubescent either. They love to brag about how tough they are, but their questions last night were mostly simple and repetitive.

Sam Donaldson of ABC News may be taking too seriously all the puff about his being a Washington institution. "Mr. President, I've listened to what you've had to say tonight, and it's still not clear to me that you will accept and agree to a budget compromise package that contains higher taxes," Donaldson said. "I've listened" and "not clear to me" sound too much like the kind of personalizing and self-promotion that Dan Rather, as a reporter, once committed at a news conference by then-president Richard Nixon.

And that awful surging forward at the end of the news conference, with Reagan raising his hands as if about to be mobbed! Such bad form. "It's over," he could be heard saying, after apologizing to those who hadn't been called on. Reporters shouted out questions about announcement of a Gorbachev summit date, and whether the president would buy stocks now if he were an investor.

It was the Charge of the Lout Brigade all over again.

Reagan had perhaps more than his usual share of faltering moments during the question-and-answer session. After saying he could hardly expect businesses to lower prices and profits as medication for the economy, Reagan continued, "and, as I say, there are no, there are no, sone-soun-signs of deteriorating economy out there in the economy."

A president should not stammer when ostensibly reassuring the nation about the health of the economy.

The word "panic" came up during the first question on the economy, and then, during his answer to the second question, on the situation in the Persian Gulf, Reagan said, "I don't think there's anything to panic about." Good heavens, we hadn't really even thought of panicking over that! Maybe we should have! Why was the president talking about panic again?

ABC and NBC dashed away from the press conference almost the moment it ended. ABC wanted to go quickly to St. Louis for the fifth game of the World Series. NBC wanted to jettison the president so it could bring out Bill Cosby and his sitcom, and get on with the network's top-rated Thursday night lineup, delayed half an hour for the news conference.

An NBC executive confirmed yesterday that the night would be a particularly important one for the network, which is trying to break a 25-year-old CBS record for the most ratings weeks won in succession. The CBS record is 39 weeks for the 1963-64 season. NBC could tie that record this week, but it needs its usually strong showing on Thursday night to do so. The longer it delayed Cosby, the riskier it got. Such are network priorities.

In the race to leave the White House, ABC and NBC were neck and neck, with ABC winning by less than a minute.

CBS had mostly low-rated fare waiting in the wings last night, so Dan Rather stayed on the air for about five minutes after the press conference, chatting with correspondents Plante and Phil Jones. At 8:41 Dan said "good night." Only the Cable News Network, meanwhile, had live congressional reaction immediately following the president, with an appearance by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Interest in how the president's remarks might affect the stock market was so high that a portion of the press conference was even carried by the Financial News Network, a cable service. Something happened to the signal, though, and the president sputtered away after only a few minutes. That may have been just as well for viewers of FNN, especially the more anxious ones. Channel 5 (WTTG) here, which normally forgoes national news events, also carried the president.

About the only place he didn't appear was on the home shopping networks. Maybe next time -- if there is one.