This time the tabloids, those handy papers designed for the mythical Average American, had it right.


So trumpeted the bold black headlines in The New York Daily News. In Manhattan yesterday morning, other subway straphangers were gazing at the rival New York Post's tabloid headline offering. It, too, was simple.


There was no mistaking the message, there or anywhere else in America. We won one, and across the nation the reaction was the same: a flash of emotion, a surge of pride, a sense of relief.

Not since the return of the hostages held in Iran five years ago had there been such a spontaneous outpouring of national joy, and that celebration had been a bittersweet affair tempered by the knowledge that the homecoming was also a reminder of American impotence. The invasion of Grenada two years ago this month stirred an immense popular reaction, but it took place against the backdrop of the terrorist bombing of U.S. military forces in Beirut. No such depressing second thoughts intruded on the dramatic news that, for once, the United States had acted swiftly and effectively, capturing the scourge of the age -- international terrorists.

And all without firing a shot or suffering a scratch.

The news that U.S. jet fighters had plucked the terrorists out of the skies and brought them to justice, flashed to the country via television announcers interrupting prime time broadcasts Thursday night, produced an instantaneous reaction. It was the sort of news that caused people to pick up their phones and call friends and family, with the breathless beginning, "Did you hear . . . ."

It was also the sort of news that produced an inevitable political reaction that seemed certain to strengthen further President Reagan's standing in the country and with Congress.

After what seemed so long a skein of national failure, humiliation and weakness, the United States had demonstrated its capacity for success. It employed its power flawlessly and quickly, and it prevailed.

That performance made Americans feel like winners again. It was proof, for a day at least, that America no longer was the "pitiful helpless giant" depicted by Richard M. Nixon years ago when a sense of national impotence began to form in the national psyche during the embittered "no win" Vietnam war years. Nixon's reference was to our failure to rescue American sailors when their ship, the Pueblo, was seized off North Korea's shore, but it applied to the growing national state of mind.

Nowhere was the contrast between feelings of frustrated failure and ebullient success more evident than in Washington.

Just a day before, the floor of the Congress was a scene of angry, bitter debate, much directed against Reagan. There were cries for retribution against the terrorists, expressions of condemnation for the administration's seeming bluster but inaction, calls to do something, almost anything but fail to act. Typical of the tough and critical talk were the remarks of two representatives, Tommy F. Robinson (D-Ark.) and Danny L. Burton (R-Ind.).

"Mr. President," Robinson said, "once again an American citizen is murdered, and once again your State Department issues statements that we are going to bring them to justice. Let me remind you that your whole administration is words and more words and more words."

Burton said, "Mr. President, we have no policy for terrorism. Attack after attack takes place and Americans die. We talk strong, and then business as usual."

Congress yesterday demonstrated what a difference 24 hours can make in the life of a politician or a political body.

In the House, members virtually stumbled over themselves in a rush to seize the lecturn and be seen and heard praising the president, the U.S. military and, even themselves, for voting the appropriations that provided the planes for the mission.

Someone unfamiliar with the recent history that produced such feelings of helpless rage in Americans and their representatives would surely have been bewildered to sit in the House gallery yesterday and listen to the rhetoric and the repeated claims for "bold, heroic, daring, valiant" -- to cite some of the adjectives employed -- military action that took place over the Mediterranean Thursday night. One might have thought the United States had just taken the Alamo, in one of history's great reversals, or again victoriously stormed San Juan Hill.

The members reported what one called "the exhilaration" expressed by consitituents who called their offices. Many spoke of the "joy" and "pride" sweeping the country. But the common theme was that this one action had dissipated, however temporarily, the cloud of frustration hanging over the nation.

"America finally acted," Rep. Ron Marlenee (R-Mont.) told his colleagues. "For once, we took a bold and courageous act."

Perhaps Rep. John S. McCain III (R-Ariz.), an admiral's son and for six years a Vietnam prisoner of war, best expressed the prevailing American attitude:

"Today we're all rejoicing," he said. "Today we're all standing tall."