With President Reagan's reputation for truthfulness and good management already mortally wounded, opposing elements within his administration are now attempting a salvage operation to keep the administration afloat and write a happy ending for his presidency.

While some moderates are looking to several history-making events, such as an arms control agreement and budget compromise with Congress, the firebrands are looking for Reagan not only to ensure that his conservative agenda remains intact but also that the 1988 Republican candidate is tied to that agenda.

But whichever script the old actor picks for his final scene, it is likely that the next 18 months will bring us more image than substance, more hyperbole than reality.

For even as the more moderate factions led by White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. are urging the president to go in directions that could accrue to the aid of the country even while winning Reagan a place in the history books, most of the firebrands seem intent on ignoring what is best for the country and looking at what is best for the president's image and their future power interests. In such an environment, even substantive issues are reduced to how well they will play in Peoria.

Why aren't more of his advisers looking to the real issue -- substantive leadership -- instead of image?

I suppose we should not be surprised by indications of style over substance in the waning days of the Reagan presidency when we've lived with that during his entire term in office.

For example, remember the safety net that wasn't there? And while he's had only 41 news conferences in 6 1/2 years, he's been available for hundreds of "photo opportunities." Reagan never hesitated to go on television with a prepared speech at the hint of a need for public support for his policies (he was never any good at ad libbing) -- but now with Irangate, we find the rehearsed script doesn't work.

Simply put, the coin of his presidency has been style -- smoke and mirrors.

This is not to say that none of the most strongly stated aims of Reagan's original agenda has been met -- minimalist federal government, low inflation, privatization and heavy defense spending are indeed facts.

But the resulting huge federal deficit, foreign trade mess, cuts in social spending and funding of illegal wars have taken their toll. Reagan policies have had a dispiriting effect on many in the economically strapped middle class, contributed to an increase in bigotry among many, fostered an upsurge in poverty among women and children, and dimmed lights on women's rights.

Now the country is desperately in need of leadership -- real leadership, not style, smoke and mirrors. And that places a special burden on the American people in selecting the next man or woman to lead the country.

One aspect of that burden is to disabuse ourselves of distorted ideas about leadership that many of us have bought into during the past 6 1/2 years. For too many of us, instant reaction polls on issues and candidates' popularity have become the major factors in selecting our political leadership. Indeed, too many Americans have played the straight man to Ronald Reagan in the past few years, letting him get away with his smooth script and glamorous image. Now many of us hope only that he gets to port without wrecking our ship of state.

But Reagan's lasting legacy may be this: Smoke and mirrors, ultimately, are only smoke and mirrors and never a substitute for substance and change based on reality -- no matter now hard and slow the process of real change can be. If we have become a nation obsessed with money, ease and the quick fix, it is partly because we've forsaken the knowledge that has brought us safely thus far.

If we are to get serious about changing the current tone and direction of our country, we must change our expectations. The task ahead is to get past the glamorous media images and dig for hard realities to make choices based on what is morally and ethically appropriate. We must make sure that the next president is picked for his worth, not his image. Only then will our choices be those that best serve the majority, preserve human rights and ensure our role as a world leader in the future.

Conversely, if we fail to rid ourselves of distortions about leadership, we'll be in trouble long after the Reagan administration and Irangate are past. For in the end, it is up to us to demand substance of our leaders and forego the sophistry of style.