Respected colleagues have pronounced, in the glow of the second inaugural, that Ronald Reagan's ''place in history'' is secure. Is it?
After 30 years of presidencies painfully abbreviated by death, misbehavior of misjudgment, Reagan's has been triumphantly renewed, and by no parsimonious vote. But ''history,'' our shorthand term for the perspective of the decades and centuries, winnows reputations cruelly, heedless of the sentimentality, faddishness and impatience of journalism.
For Ronald Reagan, the big question remains what it was at the outset of his first term: Will his great stock of vigorous attitudes suffice to secure his place in history? Or must he now get down in the dust and truly master some great issue, making it his own? True-believing Reaganites will gag at the example, but that is how Jimmy Carter achieved a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that otherwise would probably have eluded us, even after Anwar Sadat's great journey to Jerusalem.
So far as we can tell, ''historic'' achievement is likelier to begin in the boiler room than in the salon, where Ronald Reagan is so much at ease. His gift for ceremony, his pleasant gentleman's-C approach to governing, wearies no one, makes no real demands.
''Reagan,'' wrote that practiced Reagan-watcher, Lou Cannon of The Post, '''is never dragged down by details because he is never involved in them.'' Cannon cites this as one secret of Reagan's magic immunity to political blame. But will be president who's never ''dragged down'' by details be exalted by them/
Build initiatives detail by detail (never, as Carter sometimes did, forgetting the design) and you may see them through. With the significant exception of his tax-cutting package of 1981, Ronald Reagan's designs so far show no sign of materializing into lasting mosiacs. Despite many speeches, the fiscal problem, apart from inflation, is worse than it was when he took office. The strategic balance of power with the Soviet Union has not measurably shifted.
In the afterglow of Reagan's reelection it is for the moment fashionable to say that all this is ungenerous, picayunish, carping, maybe even irrelevant, to the measurement of Reagan. Detail, it is said, isn't his style; big pictures and ?? vistas are. He has renewed confidence in the presidency, and rejuvenated our optimism. And if this has been largely an oratorical conjuring trick, so what?
Amiability, eloquence and popular appeal, are important presidential assets, useful to presidential greatness. But they do not tell the tale alone, historically, Everybody like the robust, Rotarian warren G. Harding, as many disliked the austere and Calvinistic Woodrow Wilson, But in history, winnowing that distinction will not determine their relative importance as presidents.
The essence of the issue may be suggested in an exotic but useful parallel. In his fine centennial essay on Charles Darwin, ''Worm for a Century,'' Stephen Jay Gould observes that while many big names in 19th-century natural history were propounding grandiose theories, Darwin was studying the lowly earthworm, as earlier he had studied barnacles and creeping plants.
''I would rather peruse 300 pages of Darwin of worms,'' writes Gould, ''Than slog through 30 pages of eternal verities. . . . The grandiose cosmologists are forgotten; Darwin lives.
There is perhaps a lesson in this for presidents as well as natural scientists: Historic feats in most fields usually begin at ground level, where the earthworms are always at work.