WHAT KILLS POLITICAL WRITING, Walter Lippmann once wrote in The New Republic, is "this absurd pretense that you are delivering a great utterance -- you never do. . . . The truth is you're afraid to be wrong and so you put on these airs and use these established phrases. . . . You are like a man trying . . . to make a good mashie shot in golf. It can't be done by trying too hard to do it."

That pretty much sums up my views of Lewis H. Lapman's collection of commentaries on American society. It isn't really a book, in the sense of a preconceived effort to tell a story or to examine a subject with some clear point, let alone conclusion, in mind. It is instead an anthology of previously published articles, arranged and categorized after-the-fact to give the illusion of a coherent theme.

This theme is set forth in the introduction, and as best I can understand it, has to do with the disintegration of the American dream in the post-World War II years. It proceeds from an assumption, stated in the first sentence, that "with the victory of World War II the heirs to the American fortune got into the habit of thinking of themselves as rich kids . . . For the last thirty years the widespread presumptios of divine grace and eternal credit have been as characteristic of the American democracy playing wiith the toys of art and government as of the spendthrift and still prodigall sons squandering the available patrimony."

Lapham further elaborates his central point with examples:

That because Europe was laid low by World War II and the continental United States escaped the "scourge of battle," it was easy for the "heirs" to believe themselves "heirs apparent not only of the Greek and Christian past but also of the earth and all of its creation."

That the postwar inheritors became "increasingly profligate" so that within a decade the "presumptions of entitlement were extended throughout the whole of the society" and "the rich and not-so-rich acquired such proofs of their salvation as television sets, boats, amphetamines, a second house or mortgage, and the assurance that they could write novels no less great than those of Melville and James."

That "nobody was expected to work too hard" and that "anybody judged to be creative could insult his friends, neglect his debts, and seduce as many women as might be necessary to his egoism or convenient to his lust . . . Conversely, to the man found lacking in creativity, nothing would be forgiven. The miserable wretch of a philistine was sentenced to rot in the galleys of commerce."

That "most of the public arguments about social justice resolved themselves in questions of primogeniture" and that the "heirs" felt themselves "so blessed by fortune that nothing more was required of a theory (whether for a reordering of American education or a war in Asia) but that it conform to its own inner truth and beauty."

From all this, Lapham derives explanations for the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the post-Watergate morality, the energy crisis, the "adolescent and proprietary" performance of the press, an alleged decline in American letters -- for just about everything that's happened in the last three decades.

To be honest, I didn't really understand -- and therefore can't really accept -- most of Lapham's introductory exposition of his theme. I quote so extensively from it only because it obviously means something to him and is therefore important to the prospective reader. It is the book's single piece of previously unpublished writing and it is almost a perfect example of "trying too hard" in exactly the sense Lippmann had in mind.

To say that is not to condemn the rest. Taken one at a time, as they were originally intended to be, these essays are entertaining, sometimes witty, often insightful -- though obviously not as topical as they may have been for those who read them when they were first published in Harper's, where Lapham is the editor, and other magazines.

There is a fine piece of reporting about a Dade County, Florida murder trial; a nicely done account of a pilgrimage to an Indian maharishi in a religious settlement on the Ganges (and of assorted American pilgrims encountered there); a biting recounting of the congressional hearings on Nelson Rockefeller's nomination for the vice presidency; a tendentious but provocative chapter on the energy crisis. But through it all, what we are seeing is not American society, or the world as it necessarily exists, but a world as perceived by a well-educated (Hotchkiss, Yale, Cambridge), obviously intelligent and erudite gadfly, who writes with wonderful confidence, but rather less authority, about American politics and international affairs while apparently spending most of his time in New York literary circles, fashionable Manhattan salons, George Plimpton's cocktail parties and the Eastern Seaboard watering places.

Lapham seems to have so little respect for his native habitat that one wonders why he finds it worth writing about at such length. But I wish that his sense of the world he lives in were surer than the grasp he displays of another world with which I have first-hand familiarity.

He talks a lot, for example, about Washington and the press -- about "disgruntled politicians [who] wander into newspaper offices with the evidence that will incriminate their enemies" or of a "systems analyst believing himself to be the messiah appearing with documents stolen from the Department of Defense." Do they?

He complains that the press seldom worries about routine injustices committed by lthe rich for "the logical reason that the same people also own the press." Really? He asserts that the press "pulls furiously at its chain" when it comes to political corruption but "dozes quietly" when confronted with corporate corruption; he speaks of the "indifference of the press toward poverty, hunger, the inequities of the tax laws, or prisons on days when nobody riots." One has only to sit as a judge for almost any of the most respected journalism awards to find endless examples of what seems to be missing from Lapham's newspaper reading.

But it is the process, as much as the precision, in Lapham's work that bothers me. And the best testimony to this point is Lapham's: "I tend to make connections between random or miscellaneous events, and so when I read about the infant mortality rate in Chicago or New York, I think about violence at the movies. When I read about the poisonous chemicals flowing into the James River or pass by slag heaps or wrecked automobiles, I think of . . . enormous numbers of school children who cannot expect to receive an education."

It is a sound rule to watch out whenever anything reminds Lapham of anything else. As in: "The moralists in the press who mumble about the quasi-religious foundations of a free-society remind me of the spokesmen for the business interests who believe that their products appear in the retail stores as if by virgin birth."

As for the Lapham approach to the conduct of American foreign policy, he discourses on it at length even while confessing that he doesn't even count himself a "particularly well-informed amateur" in the field.

One astonishingly uninformed and insensitive passage likens U.S. support for the creation of the state of Israel to the building of gazebos by the 18th-century English nobility. "The Middle East wasn't a particularly important place in 1948, and the Jews had been through some pretty rough times at Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Why not, as Nelson Rockefeller might have said, do something nice for the fella?" Lapham goes on to record that "everything went well enough for many years, until . . . the geologists found oil in a neighboring pasture."

Everything went well enough for many years?

At another point, Lapham talks of President Carter anticipating sustained applause upon announcement of "his opening to China." Carter's opening? Was it not Nixon's? Again he has Wilbur Mills in the Potomac River when he must be referring to the congressman's nocturnal wade in the Tidal Basin. A minor displacement, perhaps, but indicative of the casual condescension with which Lapham regards the Washington scene.

He is, you could say, the very model of William Safire's (via Spiro T. Agnew) Nabob of Negativism.

It's a pity, because so much of Fortune's Child is highly readable, and a lot of it is by no means wide of the mark, if you can just get past the 'great utterances': "As every environmentalist knows, the citizenry cannot be trusted. . . . People who cannot imagine the past cannot envision the future. . . . The unheard melodies of John Keats' urn fill out the implied harmonies in almost the whole of American literature . . ."

And finally: "Within the profession of journalism I have often heard it said that the truth shall make men free." In more than 30 years in journaalism, I have never heard that line uttered by a professional in anything but jest.

At the risk of torturing Lippmann's golfing metaphor, I see Lapham elegantly attired (white flannels?), not with a mashie (a club of moderate range) but a wedge. His ball is buried in a bunker. With each graceful, forceful swing, there is a fine explosion of sand. It is an arresting performance. But the ball, even when it is nudged forward, keeps rolling back. He is trying too hard, putting on those air, distracted, perhaps, by the gallery.