"The plea for energy conservation is basically sound," says a letter from a retired Army officer, "but many Americans are not responding to it.

"All around them they see bad examples being set by people in the public eye. Congressmen continue to take junkets to exotic places. Political candidates and their hirelings crisscross the country to drum up votes, and in this category an incumbent president or cabinet officer is always conspicuous enough to draw attention. Even lower echelon civil servants travel incessantly although many of their missions could be accomplished by telephone. People ask themselves, 'Why should we be called upon to sacrifice and conserve when the VIPs don't?" And when no good answer is apparent, there is little public enthusiasm for conservation."

Other readers have raised the same question. A Riverdale woman who asked for anonymity wrote:

"The DOE has been on radio and TV lately saying that we will probably have gas lines again because people have been driving to Skyline Drive etc. on pleasure trips.

"My gripe is that several congressmen took a trip to Cambodia to see what was happening. They brought home pictures that had already been on TV.

"Mrs. Carter and another woman also went over, with all the follow-up planes that were necessary. Didn't she believe the report the congressmen brought back? Now eight congresswomen have done the same thing.

"If they all had to go, couldn't they al least have gone together and saved fuel? The other day, a Florida couple came to the White House from Pennsylvania to dine with the president because he ate with them during one of his jaunts up there. Was that trip really necessary? In addition, all those men who are running for president are buzzing around the country endorsing themselves. In other countries, a four-week campaign is enough.Why can't conservation begin with the top officials? Why does the little guy always have to be the fall guy?"

There is some merit to this critism because people in leadership positions do have a responsibility to set a good example for the rest of us.

However, before we use this seeming disregard for conservation among VIPs as a cop-out for our own failure to conserve, we must take a closer look at the nature of these trips. Many of them serve a useful public purpose.

It is in the nature of things that if Mrs. Carter and the congresswomen want to rally public support for a program of helping starving Cambodians, they must do something that will merit news coverage. A trip to the scene followed by eyewitness accounts of what was seen there not only draws attention to the problem but lends veracity, emphasis and trustworthiness to the reports that are brought back.

If Mrs. Carter and the congresswomen had trekked off to Paris in the spring or Acapulco in the winter, one could well wonder what public benefit there could be in such journeys. But a quick working trip to gather facts in Cambodia is hardly that kind of pleasure jaunt. My own feeling is that these women should be applauded for their humanitarian work rather than criticized for wasting energy.

Our political campaigns are indeed too long and too self-serving.

But they do give voters a closer and longer look at those who so arduously solicit support for their attempts to gain high office. Having said that, one must quickly add that anybody who does not yet know as much as he needs to know about Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy doesn't read the newspapers or watch TV, so even two more years of campaigning will not help him.

I am in full agreement that much government travel could be eliminated by more extensive use of the telephone. Some things can't be done by phone, but some can, and it is high time for us to reexamine our acceptance of "past practice" in this regard.

However, I think the most important point in this entire discussion is seldom mentioned. To my mind, it is this: Significant savings in energy can come only from the millions of us who are not big shots, not from the few who are in the public eye. The VIPs ought to be setting us a good example, but when they fail to do that, we ought to have enough common sense to realize that we must reject the bad example they set. We must do the right thing anyhow, in our own self-interest. The worse our leadership is, the greater the need for us to reject it.

Whom do we hurt when we waste energy to spite our leaders? We hurt ourselves. You and I will have to sit in gas lines to wait for fuel, and later return to chilly homes. But the VIPs won't. They'll send their flunkies out to do the sitting for them, and they won't have to ask the finance company for help in paying their utility bills. You can bet on it.