At a lunch the other day, Clare Boothe Luce (to drop a name) was commenting on Ronald Reagan (to drop another one) and since the great was talking about the near-great or, at the very least, the famous, another thing you could hear drop was a pin. Luce was talking about character. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan, she said, he's got it.

Now my friendship with Luce, such as it is, goes back to the appetizer that preceded the lunch, and so I am not in any position to say what she knows about character. But I was inclined to agree with her. From time to time, I am impressed to the point of near-insanity with the character of Ronald Reagan.

This happened just recently when Reagan, for a time, refused to fire Anne Burford as director of the Environmental Protection Agency, insisting, quite rightly, that no wrongdoing had been proved. Her crime, if that is the word, was in implementing his program. It would have been hard for the president to have fired her for that.

That sort of stance is, as the English say, very ducky of the president. It is even duckier because everyone in Washington knew that Burford was, politically speaking, dead. Her ghost was seen departing the town about a week before she actually went, but her departure was a political, not legal, necessity. Until absolutely necessary, the president refused to play politics with someone's career. This is what he did also with Raymond Donovan. Very ducky in both cases.

That, I think, is the sort of thing Luce meant when she talked about character. The trouble is that it is a special kind of character, limited and somewhat personal, and it sometimes disappears entirely when it comes to broad public issues. The president's recent speech to the National Association of Evangelicals is a case in point. There, the president exhibited the character of an Elmer Gantry.

In that speech, the president injected God into the debate over the nuclear freeze. The deity has been all over the lot on this one, claimed by both proponents and opponents alike, but not until the president clarified matters were we told that favoring the freeze was the moral equivalent of "sin."

Gantry himself would have blushed. There are reasons aplenty to be opposed to the freeze--policy reasons, logical reasons, intellectual reasons--without aligning it to the "struggle between right and wrong, good and evil."

The president did not stop there, though. In the same speech, he brought up a rule he favors--the one that would require the parents of underage girls to be notified if their child seeks prescription contraceptives from a federally funded birth-control clinic. Implementation of this rule has been blocked by the courts. But that is not what the president suggested. Instead, he blamed "Washington-based bureaucrats and social engineers" for the absence of the rule. Whoever these creatures may be, they did not block the rule.

That, again, was demagoguery, as was the president's assertion that the people had not been heard from on this issue. In fact, they had--and in great numbers. Overwhelmingly, they registered opposition to the rule. It was the president who wanted it--not Congress and not, judging from the mail, the people. The new rule, in fact, was written and implemented by the "Washington-based bureacrats" the president so loathes. They were taking orders from him.

So what is to be made of this? Does it mean that the president lacks character--that Luce is wrong? Only partially. The president does have a kind of character--but it is a personal one. It is the sort of admirable character that leads him to stand behind an Anne Burford until, really, there is no one to stand behind.

But that is not the same as public character. The president's speech does not show good character. Lowering the level of public debate does not show good character. All of these are as important as standing behind your friends or being a really good guy. Private character is all well and good. But the president is a public person, and he needs a character to suit.