There are no second acts in American lives, Scott Fitzgerald said, and, of course, he was wrong. We're about to witness one of the most tumultuous, emotional second acts of our history -- a War Is Over-Fourth of July-Lindberg Did It-World Series-Super Bowl Victory celebration rolled into one.

The homecoming of the hostages is certain to be an all-American extravaganza at once splendid and crass, moving and commercial. And why not? In an age of superlatives, the hostages are the lastest of our Greatest Stories Ever Told.

Not that the hostages, and the nation don't deserve a time for cheering. These have not been the best days for Americans lately, and everyone know it. And, although many elements of the hostage story raise disturbing questions for the future, this episode draws to a close by offering a fundamental and reassuring truth about the country today -- America continues to be a society that cares genuinely about the lives of individual people.

In a sense, that's what the country has been about since the beginning: to preserve and protect the rights and liberties of individuals. Those words in the antique documents about the people being endowed with Pursuit of Happiness," and about establishing a perfect union in order to "secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," are hardly articles of faith to a generation that has little sense of history. But they seem to have survived the long passage of time after all.

No matter how diverse and divided we have become in recent years, no matter how fashionable the public cynicism about government and patriotism, no matter how hedonistic, materialistic or selfish we supposedly are (we form a culture of narcissism inhabited by a me-generation of pleasure seekers, our pop analysts tell us), the hostages are reminders the old ideals appear to have been graven permanently onto the national character.

Reason enough to celebrate, certainly, and for that we can thank the hostages for bringing out the best in us.

By one of those curious twists of fate, Ronald Reagan's inauguration brought together two contradictory but complimentary strains present in America today; a deep sense of frustration, compounded by a series of political, economic and military failures at home and abroad that struck at the nation's self-confidence and self-esteem, and a corresponding yearning to believe the worst was behind us, that we were better and more capable than it seemed.

Symbolically, the hostages became the common element in both. We could identify with those 52 fellow Americans personally -- indeed, television and our political leaders from the president down made it almost impossible not to respond to them intimately. Through constant, unprecedented exposure, the hostages became vivid examples of America's woes, of its weaknesses and continuing losses. And the press and the politicians, but most of all television, made it virtually impossible for anyone, anywhere to miss that message about the country.

They were held hostage, we were held hostage. We could not be freed until they were liberated. The hostages became the Corsican twins of American history. They were inseparable. You could not cut one without wounding the other. You could not treat one half without attending to the other.

The hostage drama preoccupied, if not pralyzed, the public business of the nation as no other single episode in our history over a comparable length of time. Whether it deserved to -- and the view here is it did not -- it assumed the proportions of a war or a great depression. And as always in such crises, as the emotions unleashed intensified, the issues became blurred, the complexities simplified. The hostages took on the dimensions of a morality play, stark in its simplicty, with the characters all Good or all Evil. Persepective and history were lost; reasons for Iranian revolution were obscured or ignored; the impact on other American concerns was largely overlooked.

In that context, Reagan's inaugural talk about a new age of heroes was delivered with uncanny timing. "We have every right to dream heroic dreams," he said. "Those who say we are in a time when there are no heoes -- they just don't know where to look."

It was vintage Reagan material, the sort of thing he's been saying for years; in ordinary circumstances it would have attracted little attention, and much of that undoubtedly critical. He after all, addresses a nation in which a majority knows nothing first-hand, if at all, about the wars and battles he cites, and many of whom do not share his vision of past glories on fields of combat. But coming at the precise moment of the freeing of the hostages, his words took on special meaning.

Suddenly a nation weary of failures, anxious for success, and eager to believe in itself, had something to celebrate -- and heroes, no less, real ones, not the Hollywood variety, to cheer.

Ronald Reagan had been handed a remarkable opportunity. Few presidents have come to power amid such an authentic glow of national jubilation, and with what would seem to be a national determination to operate differently. It will not last long. For a brief period he will command the nation's attention as quite possibly never again in his presidency. The question is what Reagan will make of it. It's not too much to suggest that the kinds of lessons -- it is hoped, more about realism than heroism --he draws from the hostage episode, and the actions he proposes, could determine the success of his chance at leadership. For himself, no less than the country, the aftermath of this drama provides a second act that comes all too rarely to people -- or nations.