Back in 1968, George Romney, then running for Republican presidential nomination, changed his mind on the Vietnam War and clumsily explained his previously hawkish views by saying he had been "brainwashed." With that, the ceiling collapsed on him and Romney to this day must wonder what in the world he said wrong. It has to be a feeling shared by Ronald Reagan.

In Reagan's case, he uttered his by-now famous remark about fictional unemployment in the all-but-fictional town of South Succotash: "Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off, that he should be interviewed nationwide . . . ?"

The reason this is similar to the Romney quote is not only that it encapsulates doubts or fears about the man, but also because you get the urge to say, "I know what he means." With Reagan, he is saying that television news distorts the bigger economic story by concentrating on individual stories of unemployment. These stories are gripping, sometimes heartbreaking and even, if you will, common, but they are by no means the entire story.

In fact, the entire story, as Reagan and others see it, is that some unemployment is inevitable as the economy goes through a transition from a pseudo-welfare state (their view) to a more pure form of free enterprise. In the meantime, industries that were surviving on government grants, handouts or subsidies are going to suffer, as will those directly funded by the government: social work, for instance.

From Reagan's point of view, the networks really have missed the story of the economy's realignment (because it is hard to film) and concentrated instead on the victims of that realignment (because they make such good film). What weakens his argument, of course, is the fact that as yet the New Economic Order has not produced more jobs, but less jobs and a recession. To give the television networks some credit, you cannot film what does not exist.

Still, however, the reason the South Succotash remark was seized upon was because it was supposed to illustrate that Reagan is personally uncaring and not, in his own words, "the softest touch they've had in a long time." But the remark does not show that Reagan is uncaring at all, any more than military officers are uncaring because they know in advance of a battle that it will produce casualties. Reagan may be uncaring, but his remark does not prove it.

What it does prove is how a man who thinks of himself as a soft touch can nevertheless adopt and propose an economic program that is uncaring, not to mention mindless. After all, the unemployed that he sees as the inevitable and unfortunate results of the new program really are not inevitable at all. To a great degree, these were people who were employed because of government policy and they are now unemployed by government policy--maybe the fight against inflation, or maybe just an example of allowing the free market to run amok.

It just may be, as some free market people say, that the automobile industry in Detroit,for example, is dead and should not be revived. But that does not mean that Detroit and its people should be left to die with it. If the government feels it has no obligation to obsolete industries, say by subsidizing them a la Chrysler, it nevertheless has an obligation to the people who work in those industries.

This is where the Reagan program is not only heartless, but shortsighted. It imbues the Market Economy with attributes it does not have: namely compassion, and also foresight. It is neither cheap nor compassionate to allow the market to put workers on the road, shifting them, say, from heavy industry in Detroit to the semiconductor industry in the Sun Belt. The cheaper and compassionate thing to do would be to train the workers in Detroit and keep them in Detroit. After all, the city is already there, and in its salad days it was a fine city indeed.

The same, I suppose, holds for South Succotash. Both Reagan and the nation would be a lot better off if the television cameras could film that imaginary unemployed worker being retrained so that he could be employed. That would be good for the worker, good for Ronald Reagan and even good for television. There is a lesson in this for the president: What's good for South Succotash is good for the nation.