Once, when I was a novice mother with faith in "experts," I read advice on how the best of all possible parents should respond to a child's misbehavior.
Upon finding a child in flagrante delicto -- applying chocolate pudding to the wall, for example, or lethal affection to a younger sibling -- one was supposed to explain calmly but firmly: "I love you, but I don't love what you are doing."
The notion behind this two-pronged response was that any good parent worth a Balancing Discipline and Love badge would continue to tell the children they were loved, even while criticizing some of their behavior. We would differentiate between a good person and a bad act.
This was all done, allegedly, for the sake of the child. But even then, in those halcyon days of parenthood, I figured that it was also done for the grown-ups.
It was parents who had trouble separating out the child they loved from the child currently pouring honey all over the shag rug. It was the parents who had trouble coping with their own simultaneous love and dismay.
In the same way, adults are consistently surprised when a friend they consider personable, even kind, commits an act they would label callous or wrong. Most of us want to agree with a person we find appealing. We have trouble living with contradictory feelings.
I have thought of this often during the past year, and especially this week, as we observe our first anniversary with a most likable president.
Warm, genial, self-assured, he has presented an increasing number of us with a rather unique sort of problem: the problem of being angry at a man who seems warm-hearted; of feeling alienated from a president we think is so nice.
It hasn't happened quite this way, in my memory. We've always had some handy personal hook on which to hang the political flaw. Johnson's ego. Nixon's insecurity. Ford's decency was finally outweighed by his awkwardness. Carter's sincerity tipped into sanctimony.
In our own national cult of personalities, it has been easier to judge performance and personality together. We have packaged character and politics in a single box. It could be said that a pivotal group of people voted for Reagan less because of what he said than because of what he's like.
Now the man who seems so secure has led us briskly into an economic recession. The man who seems so kind-hearted has, literally, taken the money for butter -- $25 billion of it -- and used it to buy guns. The man with the ready smile, the slight hitch in his voice at emotional moments, has taken from the poor and given to the rich.
Throughout most of this, he continued to receive a vote of confidence. It has been as if his personal popularity had a life of its own, beyond his policies. As if his performance got a different rating from the one his results got.
There has always been a gap between how people felt about Reagan's issues and how they felt about Reagan. In poll after poll, a majority opposed cuts in social programs, and a majority supported the cutter. Some of the same people said that government should work to close the gap between the rich and poor, and supported the man who was widening the gap.
It is only recently hat this contradition has had any effect on the popularity polls. Last March, 67 percent of us told Lou Harris that we would rate the president excellent or pretty good. This week a CBS-New York Times poll reported that the overall approval rating of his job performance registered 49 percent. There is still a significant portion who praise the man himself and disagree with his policies.
I know there are complex reasons why we approve and disapprove of any president. But in our political system and national psyche, we don't vote on issues; we vote on people. So in this personality contest, Reagan still retains a protective coating of likability.
At this first anniversary party, he looks a lot like the boy pouring honey on the shag rug, while a group of "parents" looks on confused, feeling fond of the actor and appalled at the actions.