The honeymoon has ended and a new legend has been born.

The gunfire that shattered the stillness of a rainy Washington Monday afternoon broke not just four bodies, but the mood of euphoria that has buoyed this capital since the inauguration of a new president and the return of the hostages from Iran.

But it also created a new hero in Ronald Reagan, the chipper gipper who took a .22 caliber slug in his chest but walked into the emergency room on his own power and joked with the anxious doctors on his way into surgery.

This being Washington, the politicians no sooner learned that the president was out of danger than they started sorting out the political implications of the day's drama.

That is a process that will take some time, but one fact is so obvious it cannot be missed even in a capital that sometimes understands everything but the most important thing. What happened to Reagan on Monday is the stuff of which legends are made.

From primitive days, heroic tales have been fashioned from incidents in which brave men escape danger. That tradition has been carried intact into the presidency -- from Andy Jackson, the hero of New Orleans, to Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, and Jack Kennedy on PT109.

In these and other cases, the survival of the hero in conditions of imminent danger is taken as a sign of divine favor -- a token that he has been saved for a reason. So much more so when the threat strikes at the president in office, from a seemingly deranged assassin, and he survives what the entire television-watching world sees could easily have been a calamity.

Ten weeks earlier, Reagan struck an unusual theme in his inaugural address, when he turned from a recital of the nation's problems to say, "We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say we're in a time when there are no heroes, they just don't know where to look."

In his first weeks in office, Reagan demonstrated repeatedly a kind of personal ease and charm that not only delighted his audience but disarmed his critics. He was the first to kid his own supposed shortcomings -- his age, his hearing, his eyesight, even his grasp of issues -- in a way untinged by any sympathy-seeking self-pity.

When he displayed that same wit and grace in the hours after his own life was threatened, he elevated those appealing human qualities to the level of legend. As long as people remember the hospitalized president joshing his doctors and nurses -- and they will remember -- no critic will be able to portray Reagan as a cruel or callous or heartless man.

Criticism of his policies will be -- probably forever -- separated from criticism of the man. Reagan now enjoys an aura of good will and a presumption of good motive that no president since war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower has had as a shield in a political arena.

Tragically, that arena is now a far bloodier place than it was in the innocent Eisenhower era. The fragility of our governmental structure to the assassin's bullet has been demonstrated again.

Last Saturday night, at the Gridiron dinner, where Washington correspondents entertain the politicians with satirical songs and skits, Reagan and his press secretary Jim Brady laughed uproariously when a Tip O'Neill character, dressed incongruously as a bulky bride, sang, "Honeymoon, it could last until June."

It lasted less than 48 hours more. Then Reagan was on his way to the hospital and Brady was lying on the sidewalk in his own blood, a bullet in his brain. The sense that was so strong in January, when the hostages came home and the new administration took office, that perhaps the frustrations and agonies of the '60s and '70s had been put behind us -- that dream was over.

"Then one noon," the Tip O'Neill character sang, "I will pop the balloon. And I'll reveal that Tip O'Neill calls the Capitol tune." But in reality, the balloon was popped by the all-too-well-remembered sound of gunfire, and a demented individual came within inches of erasing the voter's mandate.

This society, which stubbornly resists even the most modest effort to discipline its own appetite for handguns, had once again paid the price for its folly. It appears that a sick man, arrested once before an threat-to-the-president circumstances, had procured a new weapon with ridiculous ease -- and this time had struck.

I have a chilling thought that mocks the merry mood of the Gridiron dinner. A year ago, we lost Sen. Ted Kennedy as our scheduled speaker because his friend -- and mine -- Allard Lowenstei had just been shot to death. This year's Gridiron is indelibly linked with the last glimpse of the lovely, loving man we knew as Jim Brady in his customary rollicking good humor.

Next year -- God knows what awaits us.