Jack Anderson is going after top White House staffer Hamilton Jordan and Charles Kirbo, the president's closest confidant outside of government. The gist of Anderson's story is that several other Georgia men have tried to capitalize on old ancestral ties to get the feds off of Robert Vesco's case. Vesco is the gentleman the Justice Department has been trying to extradite from various Caribbean hideaways to face allegations that his multi-millions came to him by picking other men's pockets.

The strange thing about Anderson's column is that it contains a sentence saying Jordan and Kirbo didn't do anything wrong: "There is, in fact, no evidence that either man lifted a finger in Vesco's behalf with Attorney General Griffin Bell or the president."

The most that can be said against the two, on the basis of the Anderson column, is that they may have listened to some sort of improper offer and failed to report it to the Justice Department. Since Kirbo holds no public office and is a practicing lawyer, it's hard to see how any request that he represent a potential client, no matter how notorious, could be an improper one. Jordan conceivably may have a problem.

But we don't know that. The evidence that Anderson has amassed isn't circumstantial as much as it is inferential. Anderson has a copy of a letter written to Jordan by Spencer Lee IV, one of the purported Georgia go-betweens. The letter refers to a meeting between Lee and Jordan and speaks of the meeting in such a way that it is possible to infer that an improper offer was made. But that's all you can do - make the inference, an inference which has called forth angry and hurt denials.

Inferences are a far cry from evidence, so should Anderson have printed the story or printed it in the form he did? This isn't a case of going off half-cocked. A lot of investigative staff time was put on this one. One of his people even secured an affidavit from the secretary who typed the letter in order to authenticate it and to be sure that Anderson wasn't being tricked by Jordan's enemies into buying a frame-up.

There are other pieces of evidence suggesting Vesco may be off and moving in dark and murky ways, but even after granting that Anderson didn't soot from the hip, the connection to Jordan is tenuous at best.

The theory is that people in high places must live especially exemplary lives, conforming to higher standards than the rest of us. That makes people in power especially vulnerable, so we journalists ought to be doubly careful about letting smelly innuendos and hateful half-allegations destroy those who must not only refrain from wrongdoing, but the appearance of wrongdoing.

In the present climate, people can be driven from public life in a trice by the least amount of misplaced investigatory zeal. You can be indifferent to how an innocent person feels about having his name and career blasted, but how well do you serve ourselves when we deprive a president of a trusted and needed aide because of the publication of a premature and as yet hollow scandal? This is not to say that Jordan is about to be forced out. Still, given the fast flip into the time warp of men like Peter Bourne, the president's drug adviser, it could happen.

But you also have to sympathize with Jack Anderson. Besides having broken many, many important stories, or, perhaps because of it, he's under pressure to find a varlet and hung him seven days a week in his column. That's not Anderson's fault; it's our tastes he caters to, our simple political piety he must placate. Men like Anderson are forced to be modern-day journalistic bounty hunters, paid by the number of political corpses they can bring in by a public which thinks that is good government.

Journalists, and the public which demands such journalism, could do worse than recall Theodore Roosevelt's words on this subject back in 1906:

"In 'Pilgrim's Progress' the man with the muckrake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of on spiritual things . . . Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing . . . But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes save of his feats with the muckrake, speedly becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces of evil."