He kept waiting for the excitement to come to him, that special excitement that told him he was about to become the 40th president of the United States.

The vast powers and the Life-and-death responsibilities of the presidency were soon to pass in to his hands, but Ronald Wilson Reagan could not summon up the feelings he had assumed would come to him naturally that day. Embarking on his great adventure, he was the same person he had been all his life.

When trusted aid Michael K. Deaver had roused him in Blair House that morning to dress for the inauguration, Reagan had not even wanted to get out of bed.

"It's time to get up, governor," Deaver had said.

"Why do I have to get up?" said Reagan, not opening his eyes.

Both men laughed. It was the way they talked to each other, and the way Reagan talked to those who were close to him, in running one-liners.

Still, Reagan would acknow ledge later, there was "a sense of unreality" that he felt no differently on this particular morning. It was a special time for the United States, as well as for Reagan. While Reagan slept, President Carter had spent a sleepless night at the White House in a final effort to secure release of the 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days in Iran.

The task would become Reagan's if the hostages were not freed, but the president-elect had not lost sleep worrying about it. He was not one to borrow trouble before it faced him. And on this morning, the report from Deaver was that the hostages would indeed be coming home even as Reagan was inaugurated.

The weather report was good, too. A warm front had moved in from the South, raising the temperature by 20 degrees and bringing a fine, false- spring day in the midst of an icy Washington winter.

Everything was falling into place, and still there was no special feeling. Reagan had talked to his wife, Nancy, about this, as he always did with what was most important to him.

"Both of us kept thinking there was going to come a moment when all of a sudden it hits us, but things kept happening, and there you were, making a speech, and the crowd, and you still did not have that thing that you thought would happen, that moment of awesomeness." Reagan said.

Perhaps this was the old performer talking, the professional actor who holds himself in check lest he give way to his emotions at the wrong moment and appear too sentimental or theatrical. And perhaps Reagan had already expended more emotion than he knew. Both of the Reagans had fought back tears the Saturday night before when the Mormon Taber nacle Choir sang "God Bless America" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at the inaugural-opening ceremonies.

As fireworks streaked the sky against the gleaming marble backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial, a crowd of 15,000 cheered their president-to-be and chanted, "We love Ronnie." Reagan did not speak, but stepped forward to acknowledge the cheers.

The next day at Blair House, meeting with speechwriter Ken Khachigian to put the finishing touches on his inaugural speech, Reagan discussed his emotions of the moment. Khachigian, all business about the speech, thought that Reagan displayed "a sensitivity and tenderness" he had rarely seen in any man.

"Ken, did you have a chance to get to that ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial last night?" Reagan asked.

"No, sir, I was at the office," Khachigian said.

"I don't think I've been to anything quite like it,'" Reagan said. "That Lincoln Memorial, and those columns . . . it's such a beautiful place. I've never been filled with such a surge of patriotism. It was so hard not to cry during the whole thing. That choir, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singing 'God Bless America,' Well, it was cold, but it was so moving, I was crying frozen tears."

And as Reagan told Khachigian this story, his eyes filled up again with tears and he looked at the speechwriter and said, "It's going to be hard to keep my eyes dry."

His heroes had always been heroes.

"I'm a sucker for hero worship," Reagan wrote in 1977, listing the books which had made a deep impression on his life as a young man. His heroes were soldiers, presidents, athletes and achievers who started with nothing and became captains of industry or public servants.

Born three years before the Great War, as Americans then knew World War I, Reagan grew up in an Illinois town where the arch on Main Street celebrated the deeds of those who had fought and died in Europe for what he was taught had been the cause of lasting peace. And that arch touched older memories in a state which had given so much of its human treasure to preserve the Union.

The Civil War was a living memory in Illinois when Ronald Reagan was a boy, and veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic survived in every town and hamlet. As a young child, Reagan fought hours of solitary battles with lead Civil War soldiers, shutting out the outside world while his brother played games with other boys. Heroes, dead and alive, were all around them.

Despite these martial heroes, or perhaps because of them, the United States of America to which Reagan was born in 1911 was more peaceful and protected than the nation of which he became president 70 years later. It was not a safer land. The homicide rate was less than a third of what it is today, but infant mortality was 30 times higher. Diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, strep throat and measles frequently were fatal. Reagan's mother nearly died of influenza when he was 7 years old.

But the disasters and the diseases and the nyriad human tragedies seemed part of a natural order that was once accepted and comprehensible. It was a world which men looked back at with sentiment and a sense of loss, the kind of world that George Orwell's middle-class heroes inhabited in England before the Great War.

"It isn't that life was softer then than now," one such as he remembered. "Actually, it was harsher. People on the whole worked harder, lived less comfortably and died more painfully. The farm hands worked frightful hours . . . You saw ghastly things happening sometimes . . . And yet what was it that people had in those days? A feeling of security, even when they weren't secure. More exactly, it was a feeling of continuity,"

Reagan belonged to such a world. It was a world of heroes and a world of continuity and a world in which an American boy could think that he could grow up to be whatever he wanted. Reagan wanted to tell stories, and to draw. One of his favorite books was a now forgotten novel called "That Printer of Udell's" by Harold Bell Wright, with a hero modeled after the success stories of Horatio Alger.

The hero, Dick Falkner, works by day as a printer and attends night school. He marries not the boss' daughter, as would a proper Alger hero, but a beautiful socialite whom he saves from a life of prostitution. Falkner blends Christian and business principles to uplift a midwestern town, caring more for the principles than he does for either the church or the business community. At the end, he is off to Congress.

"All in all, as I look back, I rea lize that my reading left an abiding belief in the trumph of good over evil," Reagan wrote about books like these when he was 66 years old. "There were heroes who lived by standards of morality and fair play."

He lived in a world defined by such stories, a make-believe world in which heroic deeds had the capacity to transform reality. His father had an Irish love of storytelling, favoring the tall tales and ribald stories told in male-only company. His mother, whom Reagan much resembles in temperament, believed in the magic of the stage.

Reagan united these perceptions. As a child he read Edgar Rice Burroughs, preferring to the popular Tarzan books the even more improbable exploits of Martian Warlord John Carter. As a college athlete, he made up mythical football games which he broadcast to his friends through a broomstick microphone.

As a parent, he invented for his children stories of past lives which came before his present existence. Maureen Reagan's favorite was the life in which her father is a cold germ, enjoying himself by infecting everyone with coughs and sneezes.

The germ's life comes to an end when he dives into a dish of green mold and discovers, in his next existence, that this event was part of the discovery of penicillin. It was, like so many storeiw Reagan would tell in public life, a mythic variation of a real event. In this case, Reagan's mother had been saved from influenza by her doctor's prescription to eat green, moldy cheese.

The capital of Reagan's make-believe world became Hollywood. And the stories which he loved so well possessed a special power on the screen. The myths which Hollywood promulgated as history became actual explanations of the past.

When Reagan first ran for public office in 1966 and was asked what kind of governor he would be, he quipped, "I don't know, I've never played a governor." And in 1975, campaigning for president, Reagan gave a cinematic version of how segregation had ended in the armed services:

"When the first bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor, there was great segregation in the military forces. In World War II, this was corrected. It was corrected largely under the leadership of generals like MacArthur and Eisenhower . . .

"One great sotry that I think of at the time, that reveals a change was occuring, was when the Japanese dropped the bomb on Pearl Harbor there was a Negro sailor whose total duties involved kitchen-type duties . . . He cradled a machine gun in his arms, which is not an easy thing to do, and stood on the end of a pier blazing away at Japanese airplanes that were coming down and strafing him, and segregation was all changed."

When a reporter pointed out that segregation in the armed services actually had ended when President Truman signed an executive order in 1948, three years after the war, Reagan stood his ground. "I remeber the scene," Reagan told me on the campaign plane later. "It was very powerful."

The heroic world of make-believe and the real world coalesced. The man who lived in both of them could not always distinguish one from the other, and he came to believe in many things that weren't true. He believed that budgets could be balanced, and taxes lowered, by the simple elimination of waste, fraud and abuse.

With equal simplicity, he believed that the nuclear waste problem could be solved for all time by compressing the waste into particles the size of baseballs and dropping them into the ocean. He believed that the shah of Iran had presided over "a progressive regime." He believed and believes that the United States is more popular abroad than it used to be.

But he also believes, or understands, that men and women are moved by grand visions and a sense of obligation and duty to their country. His text for inaugural day was heroism, and his example was an Army private who gave his life in France during World War I. The example sounded too heroic, too make-believe to be true, but it was.

The soldier, Marvin Treptow, had been killed by artillery fire. He left behind a diary with the words "My Pledge" written on the flyleaf. Underneath he had written: "America must win the war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone."

Across from Blair House, in the real world of the Oval Office, Jimmy Carter was doing his utmost to free the hostages during his last hours as president. Reagan aides had cooperated, joining the defeated president during the transition to send a single message to Iran which said, in effect, "Don't expect a better deal from Ronald Reagan." The negotiations had nonetheless dragged on, to the consternation of both Carter and Reagan.

"The best thing that could happen to us would be to have the hostages free when we took office," Reagan counselor Edwin Meese said privately three days before the inauguration. It almost happende. During the long night before the inauguration, the release seemed so assured that Carter and his aides drank a champagne toast to the captured Americans. But it was premature. By dawn, Carter recognized that he would no longer be in office when the hostages left Iran.

At Blair House, Deaver awakened Reagan and told him of the delay. When Carter called soon after ward, at 8:31 a.m., Reagan asked the president if he would be willing to meet the freed Americans whenever they arrived in Germany. "He liked the idea," Reagan said after the hostages were safely home, knowing that the gesture had proved useful to both of them and to their country.

Later, in the awkward ride with Carter to the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony, Reagan agreed he would say nothing about the hostages unless the planes bearing them to freedom had cleared Iranian airspace before the inaugural address. Shortly before Reagan moved to the podium to take the oath of office from Chief Justice Warren Burger, he looked over at Carter. "Not yet," Carter said. Reagan nodded and said nothing.

Just before noon on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan became president of the United States. Standing before the nation on the west front of the Capitol, Reagan could see before him a panoramic view of official Washington and its most celebrated memorials. To his left, beyond the haze of the Potomac rose the Jefferson Memorial and the hills of Arlington Cemetary. Before him, across the Mall and the Reflecting Pool, stetched the spired eleg ance of the Washington Monument and, far beyond, the Lincoln Memorial.

It was a mighty moment in history for this man who had come so far and lived so long, and yet he still did not feel that excitement he had expected to come over him.

And then this new president, who had given so many speeches and knew so well in his heart what he wanted to say, was speaking anyway, and he did not need the magic. Now he was the practiced, evocative performer, doing what he does best as he invited the thousands clustered on the grounds below and the millions watching on television to share his vision of America.

"Standing here, we face a magnificent vista, opening up this city's special beauty and history," Reagan said. "At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants onwhose shoulders we stand."

To Reagan, those giants were an inspiration and a reminder that every American could be a hero. "Let us renew our determination, our courage and our strength,"he said. "And let us renew our faith and hope. We have every right to dream heroic dreams.