I must have heard it said at least 20 times by now, and read it at least 50 more: President Reagan should never have been allowed, let alone encouraged, to receive the hostages' families -- their anguish was too much for him, eroding his resolve not to negotiate for their kin's release. I am sure the facts of this statement, which has been made repeatedly by presidential defenders and aides, are true; Ronald Reagan's sympathies were no doubt deeply stirred by his exposure to the family members' grief. But the conclusion is, just as surely, wrong. The president should have seen the families, should have made himself face up to their suffering and, if the policy of not negotiating was the right one, stuck with it nonetheless. That is the hard part -- the governing part. Averting the gaze or avoiding awareness of the painful, sometimes gory, consequences of a decision is the last thing a leader should do. It is in fact the last thing anyone should do. To pretend a choice is cost-free is, usually, not to make one and, where our public leaders are concerned, an almost certain prescription for trouble.

The thought is so obvious that probably everyone agrees with it. But the agreement seems mainly to be in principle: our current and recent political debate is full of examples of people under pressure passionately arguing the other way, insisting that a jarring reality be suppressed in order to sustain a policy choice they favor. For instance, some of those who believe, as I do, that abortion should be legal and available claim there is something scurrilous and unfair about the other side's regularly producing photographs of aborted fetuses that strongly resemble full-term infants. But to take the stand we do has no meaning, in my judgment, if we are not willing to acknowledge the choice we have made in realistic terms and to accept the intellectual responsibility of defending it.

Here is another familiar case: throughout the Vietnam War, supporters of American involvement bemoaned the fact that the killing was so vividly shown night after night on network television. Their argument was in part, but only in part, that the TV unfairly emphasized our side's depredations; more generally it was that the sight of all the carnage associated with war would turn the American public against an effort they considered essential and even, in its intention, noble. My view is that the case they had to make required them to address directly what was on the screen and to explain why this awful bloodshed was justified, not merely to put forward the theoretical case for our engagement in the war while trying to contrive an absolute minimum of attention to its human-life costs.

The assumption underlying such arguments when they are made is an odd one, combining in equal parts permissiveness, pessimism about the human character and, finally, condescension. It is that no one should even be asked, never mind trusted, to reach and then persist in a principled decision if he is going to have to accommodate the painful aspects of that decision or be subjected to a powerful emotional pull in the other direction. It does not seem to matter that throughout human history the most compelling dramas and sagas have dealt precisely with the ennobling and/or tragic results of just such choices. Contemporary theory, in large things as well as small, evidently holds that we can maintain our resolve only if we eliminate the sight and sound of anything that might undermine it. You close your eyes, put your fingers in your ears and march straight ahead. That way you neither lose your nerve nor confront evidence that might (legitimately or illegitimately) deflect you from your purpose.

Our apparently insatiable appetite for a kind of instant fictionalizing of all things -- especially all turbulent, hurtful, chaotic things -- is related to this instinct for painless, alternative-free choices. Americans must be unique in the world for a compulsion to transform the most momentous or merely bizarre events of public life immediately into manageable, controllable two-hour or four-installment "docudramas" -- slick playlets and dime novels. Manageable and controllable, after all, are exactly what the events on which they are loosely based were not. We tame life, or anyhow seek to, in this fashion, remove the danger, the threat and also the discomfiting truth that in real life when you choose, you choose: you forfeit something; you suffer something; you come out, even when you come out right, with a far from wholly satisfying result.

In the movies and on TV, the Vietnam War is back, for instance. But it is no longer live or real or unresolved, so we not only can handle it now, we seem positively enthralled with each new fictionalized version of it. It is the new generation's "MASH." Some of the versions are very powerful and instructive. But even in these the blood is essentially ketchup, and art and distance can make the story line tolerable, the pain momentary and abstract. Or take the sad if titillating Gary Hart/Donna Rice episode of last spring: already we read that the heroine, if that is the right word, has sold her story to television. So, almost before we have settled the argument among ourselves as to whether the press, the hero, the heroine or the system did more wrong, we will be treated to a transformation of a disorderly news event into some kind of structured drama.

I know that other peoples in other places have long recreated their history in poetry and prose -- "Henry V," "War and Peace" and all the rest of that crowd that one wouldn't want to liken to the present offerings. But surely the process has never been undertaken with this immediacy or obsessiveness before. And I know, too, that making money is one large motive behind our instant-replay mania.

But I still think the larger impulse, the controlling one, is our relentless desire to escape dear old life and its burdens and disappointments and rotten choices as they are. That is what the Reagan aides who say they wish they had kept Mr. and Mrs. Hostage Parent out of the Oval Office are yielding to, too. Any day now, of course, we will be seeing the whole Iran-contra thriller on the tube or at the movies. That Oval Office scene will be a three-hanky tear-jerker, and maybe it will be made to justify what followed. But that will be fiction. In the less obliging world in which such decisions have to be made, the emotion had to be faced -- and overcome.

1987, Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.

For our leaders to pretend a decision is cost-free is to invite trouble. Quote in the first two legs, pls.