By all accounts, the most successful American of the 1980s is John W. Hinckley Jr., "the man who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan."

This common identification of Hinckley shows the reporting error that masks his success: his goal was not to assassinate the president. Hickley sought and found fame. It doesn't matter that he didn't kill Ronald Reagan because Hinckley never wanted that. Ronald Reagan could have been or -- given Hinckley's history -- might have been Jimmy Carter. Or John Lennon, if Hinckley had been imaginative enough to be the first to realize that politicians aren't the only ones with limelights to steal.

What price has Hinckley paid for his glory? Almost none.

Instead of continuing his chancy life as a drifter, he is in all probability now assured of quality food, shelter and medical attention for the rest of his life. How many other Americans are that lucky? Or that deserving? He lost nothing when society took away his freedom of motion because he wasn't going anywhere anyway except in pursuit of his dream.

Which he caught. Hinckley wanted specific fame, fame in which he won the attention of a movie star he idolized and in so doing, forged their names together in history. Pity his dream girl, Jodie Foster, for Hinckley's criminal success has her innocent name carved on its heart.

True, he'll never "get" Jodie Foster in the flesh, never "have" her love. But love -- either sexual or personal -- means little to Hinckley. Besides, he didn't want Jodie Foster to love him. He wanted to be the man the public saw at the center of her life. And he is.

To execute Hinckley would have changed nothing about his success except the way in which his name is flashed in lights. Death deprives him only of the necessity of certain ultimately transitory biological functions like breathing and backaches. Execution would have won Hinckley another set of headlines in the weekly supermarket tabloids.: "Last Gasps of Twisted, Star-Crossed Lover Turned Presidential Shootist!"

Hinckley is the Me Generation come of age. His ego is absolutely free of any self-doubt or confusing questions about moral consequence. The vacillations ascribed to him by witnesses at his trial are concerned with effectiveness, not justice. He worried only about whether his "Taxi Driver"-like dramatic production would work, not whether it was right or wrong.

There'd been failures on his way to fame before. He'd tried to be a rock star and a Nazi, but both of these time-proven techniques required too much commitment and talent for our John. Yet he was undaunted, savvy enough to realize that the path to success has many milestones. At some you stumble. But Hinckley worships the Sole Commandment of the National Football League Religion; winning is the only thing.

Our boy's only strength is that unshakable faith in his own petty pleasure. He pursued his Hollywood Princess far more diligently than most of us dare pursue our dreams. How many of us who sigh when Jacqueline Bisset or Robert Redford flash on the silver screen have the courage to approach our object of romance? Have, like Hinckley, the determination to pursue our yearnings across this continent? The spirit to give that full 110 percent effort extolled by coaches everywhere? Rejections and failures didn't discourage John boy. He kept plugging away for fame, fighting to be as big as the Beatles, reaching for his Andy Warhol prime time promise -- and more. John Boy Hinckley wouldn't settle for a fleeting 15 minutes. he wanted history.

How easy it was for him to get it.

Of course, our boy had the good luck to live in a culture where success is the final ethic and during these modern times when two new dimensions have been added to the success game: success is increasingly measured by fame, not fortune, and never before has the process of mere fame been so insitutionalized and industrialized as it is in America today. Fame's temples are everywhere, from "respectable" weekly magazines like People to the supermarket tabloids; from TV's "soft" feature programs mixed in with the "hard" news shows to "personality specials" where the height of success is to have Barbara Walters ask what kind of tree you'd be if God had been less discriminating in his creative plan. This television season threw away all pretense, and gave America a show flat-out dedicated to that two dimensional vision, "Fame:" "I'm gonna live forever!"

To cast Hinckley as insane or a victim of American society is absurd semantics. You are only crazy if you fail. Ask the Wright brothers, who were the ultimate loony birds. Ask the 19th century feminists, who had to be certifiably nuts to believe any woman was worth more than the procreation, recreation and exploitation ordained by both nature and divine civilization. As for being a "victim," Hinckley lost next to nothing in conceiving, calculating and controlling an "impossible" dream, which he blasted into reality.

But there are victims scattered throughout Hinckley's ultimate success: Jodie Foster. Ronald Reagan. James Brady. Thomas Delahanty. Timothy McCarthy. Their friends and families. Even Hinckley's family. And everyone who doesn't want to become a casualty on some creep's bloody stairway to the stars.