The momentary silence, the dreaded lapse into thought -- here we have the Terror that haunts network news. On the evening of Nov. 4, an outburst of dead silence was a constant danger to television land, as the suave blanks behind the microphones juddered through the astounding election returns.

Ronald Reagan had won in a romp of unexpected magnitude. Nothing like it had happened in national politics since time out of mind, and along with the surprising avalanche of votes Reagan brought a Republican Senate. There have only been three of these assemblages in a half-century. Moreover, practically every one of the left-liberal senators up for election was unhorsed. For this the TV commentators were wholly unprepared. On the networks that night, lively interludes were sparse. w

One recalls a visibly heaving Bill Moyers, taking advantage of his last hours before fierce Reaganites clap him under house arrest, asseverating that Reagan's election means the triumph of 70-mph speed demons, the giant oil corporations, the merchants of death and someone by the name of Donny Osmond, who, according to Moyers' estimates, will now be invited to the White House.

Otherwise, it was an unusually tedious eve in television land, as the wiseheimers heaped painful vacuity upon painful vacuity, interlarding bromide with bromide, until even the Philistine producers in the newsrooms must have yearned for some footage on a spelling bee in Arkansas or a poetry reading in some remote senior citizens home -- anything to shut down the gibbering geniuses. Well, boys, socio-politico-ontological maunderings are what you get when history is being made under the noses of historical illiterates.

And history was indeed being made. Only Theodore White of all the TV pundits whom I observed noted it, and he was rushed off like the ill-timed reveler who shows up when there has just been a death in the family. An entire elite in politics and the media was revealing to the nation that it had almost totally lost touch. From the beginning to the end of Campaign '80, this elite had expected that the average American would continue to tolerate the intolerable -- hence the weeks of bafflement and then the shock.

Smacking the dust from the seat of his pantaloons the next morning, the Hon. George McGovern repined that the voters had abandoned American liberalism. The truth is that what now goes by the name of American liberalism had abandoned the voters. The so-called liberals' obsession with affirmative action, busing, no-growth economics, American guilt, unilateral disarmament and endless regulations is as much at variance with liberalism's historic concern for expanding opportunities, freedom and prosperity as the prayer of an ayatollah is with saintliness. The bizarre enthusiasms of the so-called liberals had become irrelevant to normal American experience. They had become the incantations of an increasingly weird cult and little more. Sen. Paul Tsongas saw things clearly when he laid the rout of McGovern and associates to the fact that their "dogma didn't correspond to reality."

Within the ranks of the deluded and defeated, none was more out of cadence with reality than the scamp in the White House. He came to Washington believing in nothing but the power of his cunning. Then, when he finally had to latch on to a set of beliefs, it was the poor fish's misfortune to settle on beliefs that had already been refuted, the dogmas of McGovernism. Calamities abroad exposed his McGovernite nostrums of open diplomacy, gentle persuasion and unilateral disarmament for the piffles they were. Events at home revealed his politics of symbolism and bathos as piffles plus quackery, but Carter continued to sing of the lowly woman, the lowly black, the young and the poor.

Meanwhile, rot set into American policy at home and abroad, and if it were not for a creeping realism in Congress, more damage might have been done. Nonetheless, Carter continued to cavort in his clodhoppers, his blue jeans, his cardigan sweaters, like a hick mesmerist ministering to a congregation of backwoods hill jacks. The thing became alarming.

Just how implausible and dangerous the Carter administration was seems to have eluded a host of slow minds in politics and the media, but the voters were not in the dark. For instance, they knew who won the debate, even if the commentators found it inscrutable -- and they knew whom to vote for on Nov. 4. My guess is that the voters also perceived what the pundits are only now beginning to perceive: Reagan ran a fine campaign. He is a splendid campaigner with fine political instincts. He is a competent boss. As they say in Washington, he is presidential.

He overcame all the great hurdles that the pundits raised for him. He ran vigorously against a large field of Republicans. He retooled his staff when it creaked. He chose sound advisers and addressed the issues. The early shakes and rattles of his campaign were not always his fault; nonetheless, he overcame them. Soon the uniqueness of Reagan's quest for the presidency will be the current wisdom. Imagine: since 1968 he has been running for the presidency as a pol of ideas, not as a pol of low maneuvers and great leaps. What other president can make that claim?

Finally, Reagan accomplished what the whipped liberals failed to accomplish: he adjusted those ideas to reality. He came toward the middle and asked millions of Americans to come toward him. This accommodation is at the heart of democracy, and when politicians fail to appreciate it, they lose. Some day George McGovern and Jimmy Carter will understand.