It's taken over a year, but the Carter administration finally established diplomatic relations with Bob Hope. This is just something presidents of the United States are expected to do; it's protocol. Of course, there was an obstacle, as a Hope spokesman noted yesterday: "Jimmy Carter does not play golf, and Bob Hope does not play tennis." Perhaps they could have met in neutral territory, like a swimming pool.

Instead they will meet today, at the White House, prior on Thursday night's huge 75th birthday salute to Hope, which is luring 25 big stars to Washington and will be taped as a three-hour special for airing on NBC Monday night.

The coproducer of the special is Gerald M. Rafshoon, who just happens to be a high-ranking Carter consultant whose rank is about to get even higher. On July 1, he leaves the proverbial private sector and moves into a White House office, where his job will be polishing the faltering image of the president.

Nevertheless, Rafshoon said yesterday, the big Hope hash does not constitute official diplomatic recognition of the comedian who has been pals with presidents for decades. Rafshoon laughed very loud at the very thought and then added, "This project has nothing whatever to do with my involvement with the Carter administration. It's my last production job in civilian life, and I hope the ratings are sensational."

The USO approached Rafshoon about staging a benefit for the organization shortly after Carter's inauguration. Rafshoon said. Then Rafshoon and partner James Lipton sold it to NBC as a special, though Rafshoon won't quote the selling price. Participating stars will receive union scale plus expenses. Rafshoon said, for participating. Profits go to the USO; Rafshoon and Lipton get a "fee" for producing.

Rafshoon needn't worry about ratings. Bob Hope's specials invariably draw huge audiences to NBC (although this one is not produced by Hope Enterprises, Hope's company), and there seems no end to the amount of public sentiment on Hope's behalf that can be tapped by the network.

In addition, the producers have lined up a guaranteed heart-tugger for the finale: an electronic appearnace from Los Angeles by John Wayne - his first since leaving a Boston hospital after open-heart surgery - paying his respects to Hope. NBC is not allowed to publicize Wayne's participation, because he has a contract with ABC for specials there, but word is bound to leak by Monday. Maybe even sooner.

There may be those who think that Bob Hope has had enough tributes already. His official biography notes that he has received "more than a thousand awards and citations for humanitarian and professional efforts." Of course, sometimes organizations give him awards just so he'll fell obliged to come pick them up, and many charities have benefitted from his willingness to do so.

Show-biz is recklessly self-congratulatory, and television has mercilessly merchandized the salute, tributes and testimonial. Enough would seem to be enough - except in this case, because this Bob Hope testimonial may be a way not only of sying thanks for the memory but also of saying let bygones be bygones.

During the morally indignant 1960s, Hope's image as comedian-statemen, as a kind of populist altrenate potentate, took on cetain discomforting aspects because of his support of the Vietnam war. Of course, up to that time, supporting a war being waged by one's country was not considered a very controversial position to take. This was different, and for a while, Hope lost his credibility as a dispassionate comic spokesman - something his status as a multi-millionaire hadn't really threatened - and became a kind of conspiratorial court jester for the military-industrial establishment. Later, his friendship with Richard Nixon also compromised his nonpartisan standing, or seemed to.

It's hardly a bombshell to note that not all the wounds from that era have healed. Last year Hope opertives let it be known to the resident irreverents of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" that Mr. Hope would consider appearing as a guest host on that program, even though its comic wavelength seems to emirate from a different planet than his.

The mere suggestion caused considerable righteous consternation among the staff members of the program. They turned Hope down.

Any lingering suspicions that Bob Hope symbolizes something corrupt or sinister can be suppressed, however, if not entirely dispelled by an occasional Late or Late Late Show. There one finds Hope in the kind of unimpeachable full comic flower that has been acknowledged by Woody Allen as one of his key performing inspirations. Films like "The Princess and the Pirate," "The Lemon Drop Kid," "My Favorite Brunette," and all of the "Road" pictures he made with Bing Crosby are among the funniest and most under-appreciated in the history of Hollywood comedy.

In the '60s, Hope's films were mostly stale, frail vehicles, and in the '70s, his TV specials have leaned to an unfortunately mechanical style of japery. And yet, even after a half century as a popular entertainer and even though he could not possibly be more successful, nor perhaps much wealthier, than he is, Hope is still able to insinuate his way into our living room sensibilities with the slightly threatening finesse of a mischievous young turk.

There is something about the gleam in his eye that establishes him as an entity far more sublime than the entertainment conglomerate he may appear to be.

Look at it this way: if you spent an hour or two in a room with Steve Martin, probably the most popular and one of the most inventive of contemporary clowns, you would be lucky to laugh once. Offstage, Steve Martin couldn't care less about making you laugh.He's about as animated and prankish as the National Gallery of Art. And not the new building either.

But if you found yourself in a private audience with Bob Hope, as I did last year, you would discover a man still helpless before the impulse to tell jokes. He will wait for your reaction and, though you may be virtually nobody to him, appear slightly wounded if he doesn't get a laugh. One may even be so lucky as to witness that mock-dispeptic Hope sneer - the one that blames fate for the laying of an egg. It is an expression that television has made an American icon.

Backstage before his last public appearance in Washington, Jack Benny was trying without success to reach his chum Spiro T. Agnew on the telephone. Benny was asked if he didn't have some trepidation about associating with Agnew, who was then at the crest of his particular career in scandal.

Benny replied, as only Benny could, "Look - a friend is a friend."

We will be very sorry in years to come if we underestimate what the Bennys, the Hopes, the Crosbys and the Berles represent, glorify and uphold. A friend is a friend. Bob Hope is Bob Hope.