THE STATE OF THE UNION -- President Reagan's union -- is heroic. Brig. Gen. James Dozier survives the Red Brigades' kidnapping and comes home a hero to have a prayer breakfast with Reagan. Lenny Skutnik, an errand runner for the Congressional Budget Office, saves a drowning woman and wins a standing ovation from Congress while sitting next to Reagan's wife Nancy. Sen. Jeremiah Denton, the POW in Vietnam who blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E with his eyes on Hanoi television and came home to say "God bless America," is acclaimed by Reagan as the epitome of heroism.

The president, whenever possible, invokes the names of past heroes -- Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, MacArthur, Eisenhower and John Kennedy. He telephones the San Francisco 49ers -- immediately after they win the Super Bowl and are still on television -- to proclaim them national heroes. He records a special television address for that assemblage of the greatest American heroes -- movie stars at the Academy Awards.

He tells us, finally, that "we don't have to turn to our history books for heroes. They are all around us." Simply by being born American, we are -- our president tells us -- the "last, best hope of man on earth." Everyone is a hero in Reagan's republic.

This is intoxicating stuff. Americans -- who've been down-at-the-mouth in recent years, disillusioned by their presidents, doubting their messianic role as citizens of the greatest nation on earth -- have acquired an almost desperate appetite for heroes. The nation seized upon the return of the 52 American hostages, venerated them as heroes and, for one celebratory week, felt good about itself again, even though all the hostages did was live.

When someone like Lenny Skutnik actually does something -- jumps into the icy Potomac to save a helpless, freezing woman -- he's proclaimed a national hero almost before he can get out of the water.

Skutnik, whose heroism happened to be televised and therefore both instantaneous and universal, allowed the nation to transcend, for a few pure moments, the meanness of everyday life. By a magical transference unique to heroism, Skutnik's courage is our courage.

In tragedy -- plane crashes, hostage crises, war -- as well as in sports, politics and the arts, humans beings crave heroes. Heroes make misery and death mean something. They are our link to immortality and divinity. Heroes almost make suffering fun. Pinder, the Greek choral poet and celebrator of heroes, said that life isn't worth beans without the dazzle of a good hero:

"We are things of a day. The shadow of a dream is man, no more. But when God-given glory comes, there is shining of light on men, and their life is sweet."

There's an ugly flip-side, however, to heroism. Civilizations throughout history have taken perverse delight in turning on heroes, holding them up to impossible standards, digging up dirt about their private lives and concluding, after all, that the hero is flawed and self-seeking -- certainly no better than us.

"This is a culture's way of saying that we don't want any people to get too big for their britches," says Froma Zeitlin, an assistant professor of classics at Princeton University. "The Greeks turned on their heroes, chased them out of town when they became too threatening."

It took decades for the Greeks to turn on their heroes. They, of course, didn't have the media to accelerate the hero-to-bum cycle. The media that give us quick-fix heroes like the 52 American hostages also provide us with the perverse pleasure of counting up, after one year, how many hostages were divorced, visited a mental hospital or lost their jobs.

Technology makes it possible for a nation to lionize its latest hero one week and debunk him the next: Skutnik was a hero to dive into the Potomac, but naive to allow Reagan to use him in a political speech. Investigative reporters -- the hit men of the hero backlash -- topple sanctimonious leaders, tell us about their womanizing, uncover their secret tapes. Heroic presidents are debunked by their own words.

Yet, strangely enough, spreading cynicism about heroes only heightens the hunger for heroism. Everything and everybody in American culture may appear corrupt, but we still need a hero to make us feel good about ourselves. Like thirst-crazed travelers in the desert, Americans must have a hero, any hero. Lacking the real thing (which they'd debunk immediately anyhow), Americans are willing to settle for mere images of heroism -- for mirages.

Ronald Reagan, on a purely instinctual level, seems to know all this. As our first movie-actor president, he's following a brilliant script that serves up all our favorite heroic images. The script, in fact, was written up in 1943 in a book by Dixon Wector called "The Hero in America." In the book's last chapter, "How Americans Choose Their Heroes," the author spells out Reagan's greatest role:

"Mother wit and resourcefulness we love. But a reputation for 'genius' is unnecessary and may do the hero harm.... An able man must not glory in his cleverness ... (The public) likes to think of its idol as simple in greatness.

"Manliness, forthright manners, and salty speech are approved. Love of the soil, of dogs and horses (Horses!) and manual hobbies (chopping wood!) and fishing, is better understood than absorption in art, literature, and music.

"Wisdom must be practical ... built not upon elaborate philosophies but on a few homely principles of common sense, buttressed with the lore of proverb and fable."

Reagan probably hasn't read "The Hero in America." The president isn't being two- faced when he chops wood, rides horses, rails against a welfare queen in Chicago, says "Gosh" or repeats his time-worn: "Government isn't the solution, government is the problem." Reagan is simply being himself: The first American president trained as a movie and television actor to project heroic images to a mass audience. It's Reagan's fate -- not his fault -- that the country is desperate for someone to play hero.

When the president was shot, the horrible reality of an assassination attempt fused dramatically with the movie star's one-liner ("I'd rather be in Philadelphia"). The president's ratings in the polls exploded. Reagan was both man and myth.

As memories of the shooting fade, however, the American public is starting to figure out that Reagan's plans for saving the nation's economy don't make sense. The president's programs are perceived, polls show, as favoring the rich at the expense of the poor. Reaganomics, in many ways, sounds downright un-American.

Oddly, even as Americans begin to reject Reagan's policies, they cling to his personality. An Iowa poll late last year showed Reagan ranked second only to God in that farm- belt state. Four years ago, the highway patrol, not Jimmy Carter, ranked second to God. We might not like what the president is doing, but we sure think he's a swell guy.

The president rides his horse and cuts school lunches, chops wood and gives tax breaks to racist schools, preaches fiscal frugality and runs up record deficits -- and we lap it up. It doesn't make a bit of sense, of course. But Americans, at least right now, seem to be willing to put up with nonsense for a regular feeding of heroism: If Reagan can shine a little heroic light on us all, who cares what he does to the poor.

The president has gotten away with it, so far, without the normal hero backlash. We know Reagan isn't a hero; he's an impresario of heroism, reconfirming our national myths, making us feel good about ourselves. We can't reject Reagan without rejecting ourselves.