For most of his presidency, Ronald Reagan has been known for his deep convictions to long-held principles, his cheery willingness to campaign for his causes, his "morning-in-America" optimism and his apparent indifference to the swirl of details inside his administration. But the Iran-contra investigations have helped draw a new portrait of Reagan that runs counter to the image that many Americans had come to accept.

The hearings revealed a Reagan driven to take immense risks when frustrated and a president who apparently pushed his people to take the risks as well. This evolving portrait of Reagan, encompassing the better-known aspects of his character and the new insights from the investigations, helps explain what drove him into the gravest crisis of his presidency.

Reagan was profoundly frustrated and angry over the kidnaping of seven Americans in Lebanon. His emotions were fanned by tear-filled meetings with families of the hostages, and he yearned for a raw exercise of power that would bring the hostages back, even though it meant making deals with terrorists. Reagan was headstrong about the cause of the "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua and was determined to see them survive until he could again persuade Congress to underwrite their war. And, once he was faced with the mushrooming crisis, Reagan resorted to manipulation to find his way out of it.

The story of Reagan's role is still missing many pieces. The Tower special review board, which explained the Iran-contra affair as the result of Reagan's detached "management style," lacked testimony from key witnesses and was misled about some events.

The congressional panels faced a welter of conflicting accounts. Reagan, potentially the most significant witness, has never submitted to extensive questioning by the news media or others. On Wednesday night, he will give his response to the hearings in a nationally televised speech in which he is expected to say he never would have approved of the diversion of the Iran arms sales profits to aid the Nicaraguan rebels. Reagan has denied knowing of the diversion and the investigations have not contradicted him.

Unlike past presidents, Reagan turned over to Congress and other investigators sensitive documents revealing the inner workings of his White House. From these documents and the testimony of his closest advisers comes a fuller portrait of the president.

It shows Reagan as a president who easily and often rationalized enormous conflict between his words and his actions. This characteristic was evident to some who worked for him in earlier years, when he often seemed to be a kind of split personality.

On an abstract level, he was tough, but when it came down to specific people and their lives, he was forgiving.

He could denounce terrorists as "enemies of civilization" in a speech, and at virtually the same time dispatch his former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane to Iran on a plane carrying weapons in a bid to win freedom for the hostages.

It has also become more clear from the Iran-contra episode that Reagan, who came to power as an outsider, was increasingly willing, especially in the case of the hostages, to seek results outside the established methods of government.

Reagan has never made a secret of his admiration for self-made men such as the late William J. Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who had discussed the idea of creating a self-financing, independent "off-the-shelf" entity outside the government to carry out sensitive operations, according to congressional testimony by former White House aide Oliver L. North.

Reagan's desire for unilateral action was evident in a conversation former national security adviser John M. Poindexter recalled having in May 1986 as he and the president flew home from the Tokyo economic summit.

Reagan could not accept the idea that he would have to abandon the contras if Congress refused to pass his $100 million aid package. "I am really serious," he told Rear Adm. Poindexter, according to a note written at the time. "If we can't move the contra package by June 9, I want to figure out a way to take action unilaterally to provide assistance."

Poindexter said Reagan had just finished reading a book on terrorism by Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose brother led the Israeli raid on Entebbe and was killed in the operation. Reagan "was taken with the examples of presidential actions in the past without congressional approval," Poindexter wrote.

Time and again during deliberations over the Iran arms sales, Reagan rejected the warnings and advice of two Cabinet members who represented the huge government departments responsible for foreign and defense policy.

Instead, Reagan pushed ahead with Iran deals on the advice of other advisers, who knew they were being carried out with the help of shady middlemen and Iranians of unpredictable reliability. When Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger opposed the plan in December 1985, Reagan was "annoyed" at them, Shultz recalled.

At one point, Reagan went as far as to give presidential approval for a scheme to ransom the hostages by paying bribes to their captors, according to McFarlane's congressional testimony.

Texas industrialist H. Ross Perot, who helped underwrite this and other hostage-rescue attempts, has told others of a conversation with Reagan that displayed this distrust of government. Perot, according to a well-informed source, was at a private dinner with Reagan after the president visited Fort Campbell, Ky., for a memorial service for the 248 soldiers on peace-keeping duty in the Sinai who were killed in a plane crash in Gander, Newfoundland. Reagan asked Perot to go to Fort Campbell to make sure the families were being treated properly and well. Perot said that surely the military would handle this. But, Reagan said, "sometimes government locks up and things are not done."

For Reagan, this is what happened with the Americans kidnaped in Lebanon. The government lost its best intelligence capabilities in one bombing of CIA headquarters in Beirut. The United States lost 241 servicemen in the suicide truck-bombing of Marine headquarters in Beirut. CIA station chief William Buckley was kidnaped, tortured and killed. The White House had videotapes that showed Buckley was "slowly but surely being wasted away," according to Lt. Col. North, the National Security Council aide at the center of the arms-for-hostages plan. There were endless and mostly inconclusive debates among Reagan's senior advisers about whether, and when, to use military force to strike back at terrorists.

These frustrations were at odds with Reagan's ideal that Americans could go anywhere in the world and be safe from harm. As Reagan put it, "Some of us are old enough to remember back a few years before World War II when Americans could be anywhere in the world, in a banana republic revolution, in a war, whatever it might be, and all he would have to do is pin a little American flag on his lapel and he could walk through that war and no one would dare lay a finger on him because they knew that the United States would go to the rescue of any of its citizens wherever they might be."

But this was not happening on his watch, in his presidency. And the questions for Reagan always came back to the hostages. During the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in late June 1985, Reagan met repeatedly with families of the Americans on the plane, and the meetings, according to participants, were emotional. At the same time, questions were raised publicly about the other missing Americans. On June 28, Reagan met with a group of the TWA families in Chicago, and later in the day, was asked about the other hostages not on the plane.

"I don't think anything that attempts to get people back who have been kidnaped by thugs and murderers and barbarians is wrong to do," Reagan said. "And we are going to do everything that we can to get all of the Americans back that are held in that way."

It was only five days after Reagan made this statement that David Kimche, a senior Israeli official, visited McFarlane in his White House office about contacts with Iran. Within two months, the arms-for hostages deals had begun. McFarlane told the Tower board he got "recurrent, virtually "Sometimes government locks up and things are not done."

-- President Reagan

daily questioning" from Reagan about welfare of the hostages.

This side of Reagan was not widely known, and the White House officials who dealt most frequently with the president did not let it be known, but there were hints from Reagan.

On Sept. 6, 1985, after the first of two shipments of TOW missiles had secretly arrived in Iran, Reagan was asked at the end of a five-minute session with reporters about the hostages. "We're working as hard as we can in every channel that we can about that," he said. Just because there were no headlines every day as there had been with the TWA captives, he said, "doesn't mean that that is not the most important thing for us and we are doing everything." Asked if there was progress, he said, "We don't know." Within eight days, the Rev. Benjamin Wier was released, and Reagan made the announcement to cheering crowds on a trip to Concord, N.H.

The die was cast, and the record of the Iran investigations shows that, for more than a year afterward, Reagan pushed for more deals. In December 1985, after more arms had been sent without any hostages coming out, Reagan signed an arms-for-hostages authorization. At a critical meeting Dec. 7, Weinberger warned Reagan there were legal problems.

"Well," Reagan responded, "the American people will never forgive me if I fail to get these hostages out over this legal question," according to notes made by Shultz.

"You could feel his sense of frustration," Shultz recalled of the president. Even after McFarlane returned from London that month reporting that the deals should be dropped, Reagan "wants other possible avenues for securing the release of the hostages to be energetically pursued," according to a message written then by Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost.

At one point, North appealed to Poindexter for help in overcoming objections from Weinberger. North reported talking to CIA Director Casey, who "believes that Cap will continue to create roadblocks until he is told by you that that the president wants this to move NOW and that Cap will have to make it work . . . . "

North told Attorney General Edwin Meese III, during Meese's fact-finding inquiry in November 1986, that with Reagan "it always came back to hostages." According to notes of the conversation with Meese, North added, "Terrible mistake to say RR {Reagan} wanted the strategic relationship b/c {because} RR wanted the hostages."

Reagan wanted them even though the means of satisfying this desire flew in the face of all he had stood for and said publicly. For example, in May 1986, terrorism was a major agenda item at the Tokyo economic summit. Reagan said in Tokyo on May 7 that terrorism "is an attack upon the world," and said the leaders agreed to act together "to isolate those states that provide support for terrorism, to isolate them and make them pariahs on the world scene and even, if possible, to isolate them from their own people."

Shortly afterward, Reagan gave final approval to McFarlane's mission to Tehran on a plane carrying weapons. When McFarlane returned, the first thing he told the president was "we did not succeed in getting the hostages' release," according to notes taken by Howard Teicher of the National Security Council. McFarlane complained that the Iranians lack "competence" because "the competents were decapitated."

Even after the arms-for-hostages deals were exposed in November 1986, Reagan wanted to make them work. At an appearance in the White House Rose Garden Nov. 7 with David Jacobsen, who was released in Lebanon after another arms shipment, Reagan was asked why he was refusing to comment on the reports of arms deals with Iran. "Because it has to happen again and again and again until we have them all back," Reagan said. "And anything that we tell about all the things that have been going on in trying to effect his rescue endangers the possibility of further rescues."

Reagan's great political power has stemmed from his ability to persuade and communicate, and when confronted with crises Reagan has often turned to speeches to explain and resolve them. But the Iran case was different. He appears to have been caught in a painful conflict as the firestorm overtook his presidency, wanting to get the remaining hostages out but also feeling pressure to respond to criticism. "Must say something because I'm being held out to dry," he said Nov. 10 at a meeting with his senior officials, according to notes by then-chief of staff Donald T. Regan.

But Reagan urged them not to tell all. "Don't talk TOWs, don't talk specifics," he admonished. He sought to discredit news reports of the deals. In his struggle to cope with charges that he had undermined his own policy, Reagan repeatedly denied that he had traded arms for hostages, although his secretary of state told him that was not true. Reagan rationalized the gap between what he had said and what he had done by creating a distinction between the contacts in Iran and the extremists holding the hostages.

"The president said this is what you had to do to reward Iran for the efforts of those who could help," Weinberger wrote in his notes. "Actually the captors did not benefit at all. We buy the support and the opportunity to persuade the Iranians."

The president's attempts to manipulate the facts of the scandal did not end with his public speeches in November. He also misled the Tower special review board about the circumstances surrounding the early shipment of TOW missiles and Hawk missile parts through Israel to Iran in 1985, which may have violated U.S. law. Reagan gave the board three different stories about whether he approved the first shipments in advance. According to a source who was there, the board members were astonished in their second interview when Reagan brazenly changed his story -- and that he did it so casually, reading from a piece of paper prepared by his staff.

"The president was being led like a witness," this source said.

The congressional testimony this summer also suggests Reagan may have misled the Tower board earlier this year when he was asked about the Hawk missile shipments. The board reported that Reagan had said in one interview that he "did not remember" how the shipment came about, and in a second interview said "both he and Mr. Regan agreed that they cannot remember any meeting or conversation in general about a Hawk shipment." But Shultz testified that Reagan had confessed to him knowing about the Hawk shipment three months earlier.

Reagan has still not publicly accepted the idea that he traded arms for hostages, a point that he may address this week. In March, after the Tower review board reported that the deals had deteriorated into a trade of arms for hostages, Reagan again tried to reconcile what he had done with what he had said.

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages," he said. "My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

Staff researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this report.