Former Massachusetts Democratic senator David I. Walsh was incorrectly identified as a Republican in Haynes Johnson's column yesterday. (Published 6/4/87)

They all do it, or did it, so what's the fuss? Besides, Ronald Reagan is only acting like Franklin D. Roosevelt in a time of national crisis. So why all of this hypocritical bleating from liberals and Democrats?

That's the line of reasoning increasingly employed by many Reagan defenders in recent weeks as the Iran-contra hearings produce testimony damaging to the president and his operatives.

The comparison between Reagan's actions in getting military aid to an embattled foreign force and Roosevelt's similar moves decades ago is invariably, and favorably, drawn. Commonly cited as similar to Reagan aiding Nicaraguan contras by circumventing Congress is FDR's famous decision to lease 50 old U.S. destroyers to Britain. That came in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, the embattled isle's most perilous moment of World War II, when the United States was still officially neutral.

As a reader in Wilmington, Del., writes:

"He had no congressional authorization for that, but President Roosevelt was interested in saving England. If England had not been saved, we might all be using Deutsch as our first language now. It is curious and ironical that the left-wingers, including yourself, who once were known as 'liberal' but no longer deserve such a title, are the new isolationists, replacing the old, right-wing Republicans of 50 years ago. The world surely does turn!"

Pejorative characterizations aside, the argument merits examination.

Roosevelt did bypass Congress in providing the destroyers and knew he was taking a monumental, calculated risk.

"Congress is going to raise hell about this," he is said to have told his secretary, Grace Tully, as he prepared his draft of the deal by which the British, under heavy private U.S. pressure, agreed to provide bases to U.S. military forces in exchange for the destroyers.

Like the contra situation, the destroyer deal proceeded in the face of a congressional prohibition. The passionate isolationist and Roosevelt-hater, David I. Walsh (R-Mass.), then-chairman of the powerful Senate Naval Affairs Committee, had learned of administration plans to send 20 new torpedo boats to Britain and ramrodded legislation banning such activity. His law provided that destroyers could be sent to Britain only if the Navy certified them useless for U.S. defense.

Nonetheless, FDR acted, stirring not only a congressional outcry but also a public one. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch took out an advertisement in leading U.S. newspapers to say, "Mr. Roosevelt today committed an act of war. He also became America's first dictator . . . . Of all sucker real estate deals in history, this is the worst . . . . "

Wendell Willkie, FDR's Republican opponent in the presidential election then only weeks away, had been consulted in advance and privately favored the deal but was unwilling to say so publicly for political reasons. When the deal was announced, Willkie denounced Roosevelt for bypassing Congress and accused him of having committed "the most dictatorial and arbitrary act of any president in the history of the United States."

Thus, the similarities. There are striking differences, the most important of which is this:

At no point did Roosevelt attempt to hide his actions or deceive Congress and the public about his intent. He had repeatedly implored Walsh to remove his opposition in the national interest. Before acting, FDR secured and made public distinguished legal advice showing how the destroyer sale could be made under existing legislation. He knew he would precipitate a political controversy that could cost him the presidency, but he took that risk openly. Unlike the contra affair, there was no lying, no evasion, no secret operation, no covert shipments of arms in the night, no official attempt to mislead, no subversion of the system, no cover-up to protect presidential involvement.

As James MacGregor Burns writes in "The Lion and the Fox," his superb political biography of Roosevelt:

"The test of great political leadership is not whether the leader has his way; it is, first, whether the leader makes the most of existing materials he has to work with, and, second, whether he creates new materials to help him meet his goals."

In his great crisis, Roosevelt took his political risk boldly and assumed responsibility for all of the world to see. In his great crisis, two generations later, Reagan did not. He is paying the price.