Harding was handsome and smiled, too, and the people loved him. When he was gone, they wept, elevated him instantly into the mythic pantheon of great presidents, compared him to Lincoln, wondered how they and the country would survive his loss.

Years later, when history judged him more harshly, when it was no longer fashionable but foolish to express a love or reverence for him, people still sighed and said, ''Well, he looked like a president anyway.''

Of Ronald Wilson Reagan, it can be said now without dispute, and certainly repeated for years to come, that whatever history's final judgement on his presidency people will still say of him, ''He looks like a president.''

That is not to suggest that Reagan is nothing more than a warmed-over Warren G. Harding, who ranks as perhaps the worst U.S. president.

It is to suggest instead that Reagan, as with Harding and a very few other presidents, has demostrated just how powerful an impact personality can have on American public life, especially its political life.

What's more, in teh minds of fellow citizens, Reagan has established himself as far more important than a politician merely capable of etching a charming portrait of how a real president is supposed to look.

To them, he is the president, a strong one. And, with continued luck and good health, when he completes an eight-year presidency, he will be the only one a majority of Americans will have known as president for so long.

Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan will be the president Americans think of when they compare the strengths and weaknesses of his successors.

In this alone, Reagan has put his stamp on the country.

At the very least, in the four years since his first inauguration, he has restored the presidency to its former plate of highest public esteem. After a generation of failed, flawed or destroyed presidencies, Reagan has made it popular for Americans to like their president and to respect an office that seemed to have sunk into public disfavor and disrespect.

He has accomplished something else.

With his jaunty manner, ever-ebullient public mood, young man's springing step, habitual air of confidence if not cockiness, good humor, and, yes, constant smile-and-a-wave, he has by sheer dint of personality almost willed Americans to feel better about themselves and their country.

So they do. And, rightly, they credit Reagan with having inspired that feeling and created that mood.

Think back to the moment on Jan. 20, 1981, when power was passed at high noon on an inaugural platform that faced west for the first time in the history of such ceremonies, to the incoming and outgoing presidents and all of the leaders of the U.S. government overlooking the Capitol grounds, Mall, monuments and continent beyond.

Even as Reagan raised his hand to take the oath, the freed American hostages were being flown from captivity in Iran, ending an extraordinary ordeal that gripped the entire nation. No one knew then whether the ordeal had ended or presaged a more difficult period.

The economic portents were poor. Americans had become accustomed to, but not accepting of, waiting in long lines to buy gasoline. They watched, uneaily and unhappily, as their country's competitive edge visibly slipped while roaring inflation propelled prices ever higher and threatened to lower everyone's standard of living.

America's political process was in disarray. Since November 1963, slightly more than 17 years earlier, five men had presided in the White House: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter.

Not only did the threads of presidential continuity appear to have snapped; government itself seemed incapable of functioning effectively. Worse, a pervasive climate of cynicism about national leaders seized the country.

At the beginning of Reagan's presidency came the national celebration over the return of the hostages. Since then, his time in office has been marked by celebrations about everything from the performance of American athletes at the Olympic Games to the apparent victory over inflation.

All along the way, Reagan, has been there, vigorously leading the cheers. Without doubt, he is the most successful political cheerleader to occupy the White House.

He has proven as skillful at taking credit for the good things that have happened as at inspiring the cheers.

The people willingly have given him applause and thanks for making things better.

There is something more significant in these facts than image and personality.

With Reagan, as with no president since Dwight D. Eisenhower -- interestingly, the last one who served a full eight years -- there has been a disposition, especially in Washington's ''smart'' and self-designated sophisticated circles, to deprecate him, patronize him, write him off as oneof those political accidents that occur ocasionally and will be corrected when people come to their senses and his term expires.

Like Ike, he has been sneered at for his presumed intellectual failings and lackadaisical, if not lazy, work habits.

Unlike Ike, who at least demostrated leadership gifts as a great wartime military commander before becoming president, Reagan has been treated with half-veiled comtempt for his presumed lack of abilities.

Some have said he is just an actor, and an old Grade B one at that, who presides over a Potemkin Village of a presidency -- one that values show over substance and places its greatest efforts at achieving the most flattering photo opportunities for him, that has made public relations the centerpiece of his administration.

In the Age of Television, our first and only celluloid president is king.

These, it is said, in the same disparaging vein, Reagan is just a lucky president.

There is truth in all of these complaints and criticisms.

Lucky, for sure:

* The bullet strikes an inch from the heart and he survives.

* The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cartel is shattered, not through his actions or policies, and inflation subsides.

* The Soviets, through stupidity and anger at the actions of Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, in boycotting the 1980 Olympic Games, do not come to Los Angeles four summers later and leave the athletic field to Americans and the American president.

* The presidential election occurs two years after the most severe recession since the Great Depression when, with no thanks to his economic policies, a recovery is under way and before the debt comes due, as inevitably it must for the historic deficits accumulated during his first term.

Valid though many of these criticisms are, they miss the larger fact about Reagan and his impact on American life in the 1980s and, quite possibly, beyond.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote:

''It is important just when a generation first sees the light -- and by a generation i mean that reaction against the fathers which seems to occur about three times in a century.''

Reagan has been the leader who helped another generation ''see the light'' of a changed America. And he has not stumbled into this position by dumb luck. He does not fit all of Fitzgerald's criteria for being the person who leads the reaction against the acts of the past, but enough of them to take note.

As Fitzgerald defined what constitutes this sort of change:

''it is distinguished by a set of ideas, inherited in moderated form from the madmen and the outlaws of the generation before; if it is a real generation, it has its own leaders and spokesmen, and it draws into its orbit those born just before and just after, whose ideas aee less clear-cut and defiant. A strongly individual generation sprouts most readily from a time of stress and emergency -- tensity, communicated from parent to child, seems to leave a pattern on the heart.''

That ''strongly individual generation,'' born of the tensions and mistakes of the past, of Vietnam and Watergate and all of the failed presidencies and reacting against excesses of government and social policies dictated from Washington for half a century, is upon us.

Not the least of the ironies involving Reagan, by far the oldest of U.S. presidents, is that he leads and articulates the views of this new generation of Americans and new voters, too.

Thus came the apparent paradox last fall when the nation's oldest presidential candidate received 60 percent of the votes cast by the youngest Americans eligible to express their electoral opinion.

This is not as strange as it seems. For a generation, reagan has been the politician who consistently sounded the message that the old political order is over. It is he who has led the move to curb government, cut taxes, return authority to states and municipalities, reduce the fundamental nature of the welfare society and abolish major aspects of it.

In the process, and despite all of the critics, he has prevailed.

As he begins his second term, he dominates the American political scene as no one has since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan's first political hero and the president who set America on the path of greater national government in the early 1930s.

Today, every major politician of either party and those who aspire to succeed him react to Reagan's agenda and Reagan's issues, whether taxes and growth, free enterprise and individual initiative, defense and social spending.

Undeniably, he returns to the White House with the good will and affection of a great majority of Americans.

He continues to confound his critics and political enemies every bit as much as did Roosevelt. in that respect, William Allen White's famous tribute to FDR could now be recast for Reagan.

White, the great country editor from Kansas who wrote often wrote critically of how ''the wizard in the White House works his weird spell upon a changing world,'' in the closing years of both of their lives paid FDR the ultimate tribute:

''Biting nails -- good, hard, bitter Republican nails -- we are compelled to admit that Franklin D. Roosevelt is the most unaccountable . . . president that this United States has ever seen. He has added a vast impudent courage to a vivid but constructive imagination, and he has displayed his capacity for statesmanship in the large and simple billboard language that the common people can understand; moreover, that the people admire, even when it is their deadly poison. We have got to hand it to him.

''Well, darn your smiling old picture, here it is! Here, reluctantly, amid seething and snorting, it is. We, who hate your gaudy guts, salute you.''

But few Americans hate Ronald Reagan. He retains the country's affection.

Whether it remains that way, whether the good will and good luck hold or turn on him in what promises to be a far more difficult second term, are not at issue today. They form the last act of a remarkable political drama headed by one of the most unlikely and, so far, successful American presidents.