Oh boy, the Commies are back!

At least I think it's the Commies, but maybe it's not. The president was not specific and the White House, when queried, was vague also. All we know is that the president of the United States says that the nuclear-freeze movement is not "inspired by . . . sincere, honest people who want peace, but by some who want the weakening of America and so are manipulating many honest and sincere people." Sounds like Commies to me.

The White House would not say just who these people are who are soft on nukes. All it would say is that "this is just a general statement on his the president's part." Left unsaid, but clearly implied anyway, was the suggestion that this was just another presidential remark, and under the rules that apply only to Ronald Reagan, it is considered unfair and petty to ask him, politely of course, just what in the world he's talking about.

Who could blame the White House? For almost two years, the president has shown with impunity that he knows the facts only occasionally. At his most recent press conference, for instance, he said that "for four quarters we have seen a growth in the gross national product." At best he's half right. For only two of the last four quarters did the GNP expand. It contracted in the other two.

The president said the rate of increase in unemployment was "rising just as fast at the end of the Carter administration." Wrong. It declined then. He said auto sales had increased over "the last several months." Wrong. They're in the pits. A while back, he said a child born three months after conception could live. Wrong. It could not. He said his budget cuts had had no impact on a nutrition program for pregnant women. Wrong. It had been cut back.

This sort of thing has gone on for so long that a presidential mistake is hardly treated as significant. The upshot is that the president, like a child, is being patronized, in fact treated the way he treated Jimmy Carter: "There he goes again." The president's attitude is that these are nothing but details. He is a Big Picture guy.

The trouble is that the big picture is composed of lots of little pictures, and anyway, it is the president who brings up these examples. Here is a man who creates his own data base to buttress his own conclusions, who resorts to fiction when the facts alone do not justify his position -- who lives in a world of imaginary programs with imaginary ramifications certified by imaginary numbers. More and more his program is beginning to look like the Yellow Brick Road. The Wizard is blowing a lot of smoke.

Up to now, the World According to the Gipper has seemed like an innocent-enough concoction of sloppy homework, whole cloth and a wish or two. But when the president impugned the motives of people in the nuclear-freeze movement, giving them the choice of being either dupes or unpatriotic and offering no substantiation of the charge, he stepped over the line. The image of a friendly but bumbling Ronald Reagan suddenly blurred into one of mean and menacing Joe McCarthy. All the statement lacked was a list of purported dupes or traitors.

The issue is not whether the president is a nice guy or not -- whether he intends to deceive or whether he just stumbles into misstatements. What matters are the results. When it comes to economics, the truth remains the truth and even Ronald Reagan cannot expand the GNP simply by saying so. But when it comes to political dissent, the president sets a tone. Simply by characterizing his political opposition as fifth columnists, he can revive a political atmosphere in which dissent is likened to treason and partisan politics gets confused with the national interest.

It seems almost unfair to hold the president accountable for what he says. His mistakes and homespun fictions have been tolerated for so long that he could be excused for thinking that, unlike other politicians, his rhetoric does not have to conform to the facts. But now, emboldened or unchastened, he has slipped into what amounts to demagoguery. When it comes to that, it is neither rude nor disrespectful to ask of the president what should be asked of anyone who questions the loyalty, and not just the arguments, of his political opposition: Mr. President, put up or shut up.