"Haig's critics will have to look to their own conscience as to whether they're seeing an opportunity to get at me." -- Ronald Reagan

WHEN RONALD Reagan said this to Newsweek at the end of December, he seemed to be sensing a crucial factor of the atmospherics of Washington: that each administration has its scapegoats, those singled out to take the heat off the president. Administration will be no exception.

Why, for instance, has Nancy Reaganbeen getting such terrible press? Why did Alexander Haig get such a rough going-over by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and by the press even though he is universally acknowledged to be bright, dedicated, experienced?

Why did Bobby Kennedy, believed to be the social conscience of the Kennedy administration, have to take the heat, to be labeled ruthless -- Bad Bobby to his brother's Good Jack?

Why were Jack Valenti and Marvin Watson the ones who were inevitably on the firing line during the Johnson administration?

Who singled out Haldeman and Ehrlichman early on in the Nixon administration as being the keepers of the gate, the ones to get?

Was Bob Hartmann, in Jerry Ford's administration, really the hardnose many thought he was?

How did Bert Lance, then Hamilton Jordan, then Zbigniew Brzeinski, occasionally Rosalynn Carter herself, and finally Billy Carter wind up taking so much criticism during the Carter administration when the president -- almost until the end -- managed to retain the image of a nice, decent human being?

No one will dispute that there are scapegoats in any administration. The question is: Who decides which people will be selected as targets and how?

Consider this theory: The Capital as Family Crucible.

In their book "The Family Crucible," Augustus Y. Napier and Carl A. Whitaker, both pioneers in family therapy, have developed a theory that a family will devise a silent plan for dealing with internal hostility. They will select a scapegoat to act out the stresses of the whole family. This way father and mother stay together, and, for the crisis period, the family functions relatively well. This scapegoat device is rarely, if ever, spoken of or consciously acknowledged. It just happens.

Consider the incoming administration as one family and the president as its father . For the sake of argument, say Washington is the mother of another. A divorcee, married quite often, almost once every four years. She has a multitude of children by her myriad marriages. She's older now. She is worldly cynical but she know how to nurture and please a man if he's willing to let her.

The new president is the stepfather. He, too, had been married before and he comes to town with a retinue of children by his precious liaisons.

The French would call this new marriage a marriage de convenance. Both partners stand to profit by their new relationship -- if, of course, the children can get along.

Naturally there will be some hostility. The children of Washington have lost yet another father and though they are never really sorry to see him go, they have become used to being on their own for periods of time. They have developed an alarming independence.

Ever since Watergate, when they losttheir least favorite stepfather of all, they have developed a much less accepting attitude, making these transitions difficult for the honeymooners.

They've been around the course with mother often enough to know that they can wait this one out, too. Pretty soon they'll have another father, so why take the new one so seriously.

They do have manners, though and since the new father is moving in with the mother's family they have to be nice, at least for a while. They will try to hide their hostility at being disrupted once again. They will make an effort to share their rooms and their toys and their dinner table with the new kids.

Inevitably things begin to sour but mother and father don't like fighting and arguing. It makes them nervous, pits them against each other and looks bad to the neighbors.

So the family as a whole devises the Scapegoat Plan.

In "The Family Crucible," Napier and Whitaker address the dynamics of families as "systems." "All systems," say the authors, "are organized, and they maintain some kind of balance or equillibrium."

The book goes on to describe a study of schizophrenics in a psychiatric ward, particulaly when the patients have what the autors refer to as "psychotic episodes."

According to Napier and Whitaker, "As the families of schizoprenics were studied, it became evident that in almost every case there were long standing and sever marital difficulties between the parents. Furthermore, the psychotic episodes of the 'patient' seemed to be related to the cycles of marital conflict. The parents would get into a battle, and as it began to intensify, the son (or daughter) would begin to become psychotic. Once hospitalized, the couple would call off their war in order to be, again, the parents of a 'sick child.' Actually, their child's psychosis seemed to have a very practical result: It helped the couple deal with their conflict by giving them a way of avoiding it. The family's very stability seened to be maintanined by the periodic 'illnesses.'"

And later they would ask, "What to do with the individual 'patient,' the person whose complaint first called attention to the troubled family? Where did he or she fit? Well, the easiest thing was to label this person a simple victim of family stresses. The indentified patient was family scapegoat, whipping boy, Christ -- someone who agreed openly to suffer so that the family could remain stable."

"We stress the president's sponsorship of his national security aide now as the memoir battles are getting under way and as it appears that Mr. Brzezinski might turn out the scapegoat of choice. Remember this: he did not draw his authority and his cheek from nowhere." -- Washington Post editorial page, Jan. 5

"Somebody always ends up by being that lightning rod or scapegoat," says Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter's press secretary. "It may be different people at different times. In retrospect you can look back and see how it happened, that it was them getting more than their share that was coming down the pike.

"When ya'all [the press] are picking out who to watch and who had less elbow room, once the spotlight gets turned on you, it makes it harder to get out of and there is a natural tendency not to want to be pushed, not to be asked to be something you're not, to prove you can't be forced to change, because it gives people proof that they were right all along."

Powell agrees that in Washington there is a general reluctance to take on the president himself.

"Particulary early on," he says, "people are disinclined to go after the king. They will go after the Lord Privy Counsel or if they can take away the Duke of Lancaster . . . but that part is more of a community characteristic than it is journalistic."

Powell isn't sure why this is so, but says, "It does happen, though I don't know that in the long run it benefits anybody."

Listen to Arthur Schlesinger, who wrote in his book "Robert Kennedy and His Times": "Inside the campaign he [Bobby] was the tireless invigorator and goad, responsible for everything except the speech. Outside he became the man to do the harsh jobs, saying no, telling people off, whipping the reluctant and the recalcitrant in line."

Here are Susan and Jim Baker talking about his new job as Reagan's chief of staff:

"It can be a horrible job."

"What she's talking about is the hours."

"What I'm talking about, honey, is the fact that you guard the door, and anybody who guards the door gets speared a lot."

Jack Valenti, a former Johnson aide and now head of the Motion Picture Association, thinks that Harry Hopkins, FDR's close adviser, was one of the legendary scapegoats in politics. Valenti also believes that he played the role of the scapegoat for LBJ.

"I took a lot of heat," says Valenti. "I never tried to defend myself because if I did I would have to show that I was smart and the president wasn't smart. If I didn't defend myself than it looked like the president was smart and I was screwed. If the person defends himself then he deflects the arrows back to the principal target. President Johnson, on different occasions, told he was compassionate about it. He once told me, "They're not after you, they're after me and you're just absorbing some of it."

When things started getting rough during the Carter administration, certain members emerged as scapegoats at various times, in order to deflect criticism and attention away from their leader.

Jimmy Carter dealt in different ways with the family's selected scapegoats.

First there was Bert Lance. Lance's crucible began the summer after Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, a few months after the presidential honeymoon was over and criticism was beginning to heat up over the energy crisis; there were problems with Congress and criticisms about Carter's self-styled seclusion.

Enter Bert Lance. (And don't forget the pathos of LaBelle Lance either.) It was a dull summer. Slow news.Without Lance the press would have had to concentrate on the president. The Lance thing blew up. But Carter refused to let Lance sacrifice himself at the beginning. Carter prolonged the agony until people were, almost reluctantly, turning to him as the responsible one. Finally he "agreed" to let Lance go, but not before his now famous offering, "Bert I'm proud of you."

Once Lance was offed, the family went back to its relative stability with the normal degree of fighting and carping, until the next crisis arose. This time it was the aftermath of Camp David, when the treaty began to show cracks and Carter began taking criticism for his human rights efforts; the Panama Canal issue came to the forefront, his relations with Congress continued to deteriorate and there was the beginning of trouble between his secretary of state and his national security adviser.

Napier and Whitaker discuss the family's power over the "patient" seeing a client "recover," only to witness all the progress undetermined by the family; or treating the scapegoat child "successfully," only to find another child dragged into the role.

Some time after the Bert Lance "episode" the timing seemed perfect for another. The scapegoat this time was Hamilton Jordan, a quiet, bright and dedicated aide who suddenly sounded as if he were behaving like a wild man. With little warning, stories of jordan's antics began to emerge -- peering down the Egyptian ambassador's wife's dress and declaring "I've always wanted to see the pyramids of Egypt; spitting Amaretto down the front of a young woman in a bar. There were allegations -- later disproved -- that Jordan sniffed cocaine in the basement of Studio 54. All of these stories were denied.But something was clearly going on. The episodes did have one immediate and very definite effect. They deflected the criticism and the attention away from the president.

The first real crucible President Carter arose the summer before last when he made his famous "malaise" speech, fired half the Cabinet and failed to deal with the severe gas shortages.

This time Rosalynn Carter seemed to volunteer herself up, even though it is always a risky business to have the first lady take the heat. She took her trip out West and around the country shortly after they all came "down from the mountain." The announced purpose for that trip was to raise campaign funds and to visit mental health facilities. But everywhere she went she spent most of her time defending her husband, apologizing for him and finally, drawing criticism away from him to herself. Soon after her trip she retired again to the back seat. But things were still pretty hot.

The scapegoat replacement this time was a person who had been preparing, training for the role for over two years. Not satisfied with his role as agitator of foreign policy conflicts, Zbigniew Brzezinski marched out and claimed the role of scapegoat for himself, upstaging his predecessors with a series of "episodes" -- including peering down at Soviet-occupied Afghanistan through a Chinese-made machine gun and later inviting a Pakistani soldier to fire a round. His "episodes" only escalated during Jimmy Carter's final and fatal crucible: The Hostage Crisis. Nobody could top Brzezinski. Even Cy Vance's dive off the edge of the cliff didn't help. Six months passed, the pace of the campaign quickened. By summer with the convention approaching, the president didn't look like anybody's favorite. And he still stuck with Brzezinski.

There was, however, one person left. With all eyes and considerable-hostility focused on the president, brother Billy Carter stepped forward with his Libian troubles. To some extent it helped. Three and a half years into his presidency and Jimmy Carter was still being labeled a "nice, good, decent" person. If only, they said, he didn't surround himself with all those horrible people.

Then came the election. All the scapegoats, all the "episodes," all the human sacrifices couldn't save Jimmy Carter, or his family. They could no longer deal with their stresses. A divorce was the only solution. The marriage had ruptured despite the "sick children's" efforts to save it. Mother was once more on the make. And the kids could get their own rooms back, with their own toys, not have to play with their not always adored brothers and sisters. If only she wouldn't marry again.

"The president-elect isn't the only one raising an eyebrow over news media rumors and commentary critical of Nancy Reagan. Veteran civil servants at the White House say they can't recall a First Lady who was attached so rigorously even before she came to Washington." --Washington Whispers. U.S. News and World Report, Jan. 19

Oh Mother doesn't do very well without a man, even though there has been a rather rapid turnover of late.

And hasn't she just done it again? Another Mr. Nice Guy. Good for Mother, at least for now. Bad for the kids, especially the ones who will have to "get sick" to keep the family stable, at least for a while.

It's always hard to tell who's going to be selected and who's going to volunteer in the playroom. But in the Ronald Reagan administration there are a few who definitely stand out as potential scapegoats.

Number One, so far, is his very wife Nancy. Even before he was inaugurated she had managed to garner criticism. What has she done to deserve this ill will?

The answer is simple. She has been selected, for yet another term (don't forget she played the same role in California as governor's wife, only the press didn't pay as much attention) to be the "sick child" in the family, to deflect the criticism and hostility away from her husband and onto herself. Nancy Reagan is no dummy. Besides, she's an actress. She could perfectly well assume any role she wanted to. She certainly knows how. She could play the Doris Day role, the June Allison role, even the Jane Wyman role. So why does she play Joan Crawford?

The only plausible answer is that she wants to.

"Everybody wants a piece of the man," says Nancy Reynolds, Nancy Reagan's immensely popular confidante and friend. "They fight like sharks. She's very protective. If she has to be the hatchet man, the bad guy, she'll do it. Thank God for her, because he's Mr. Nice Guy."

Liz Carpenter was Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary and she has seen the scapegoat syndrome go on for a long time in Washington. She will even hark back to the Roosevelt administration.

"Eleanor was the heavy then," she says.

Carpenter can't recall any other first lady since then being the scapegoat, but she does see how it could happen to Nancy Reagan.

"Nancy Reagan was just another pretty face and then suddenly after the election there was this great shove to get the Carters out of the White House. Everybody in the country was incensed about it. She has to recover lost ground. Is she somebody who just shoves? Before, most people had a picture of a face looking up at her husband adoringly. She doesn't have the mark of a contemporary woman. She has to make peace with the women's movement. The new woman is a contemporary woman. I think she has the image of not understanding the contemporary woman and she has made no attempt to change the atmosphere. We have always demanded that first ladies care. Most of them have cared enough to at least be interested. The days are gone when you can go shake hands with the DAR and serve petit-fours."

Nancy Reagan's new staff is already painfully aware of this development. Her new press secretary, Sheila Patton, has been phoning former first ladies' secretaries for advice. And one person high in Ronald Reagan's press operation raises an eyebrow and admits Sheila Patton's "got her work cut out for her."

Let's not, however, concentrate only on Nancy Reagan, because she is a special case. There will undoubtedly be other scapegoats as the honeymoon comes to a close and things, as the British say, begin to "hot up."

Someone who has already proved himself to be an effective lightning rod is Alexander Haig, Reagan's choice for secretary of state. He had drawn attention to himself and his share of the criticism. Reagan even stated that he understood the criticism of Haig in the lead quote in this piece. Could Reagan have early on decided on Haig as a scapegoat? Will it work?

As Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) said of Haig at the confirmation hearings, "What we are dealing with here is a high-risk, high-gain opportunity. If Reagan subconsciously wants Haig to be his No. 1 scapegoat it could be a risky proposition. For though Haig is a loyal soldier ("Your commander-in-chief has given you an order"), he is also very adept at saving his own skin when the going gets rough. (Remember the Watergate White House.) Haig seems to taking the former position. He has agreed against his wishes to accept President Reagan's choice for Deputy Secretary of State, the controversial California Supreme Court Justice, William P. Clark.

Surely there are others in the wings.

James Watt is shaping up, with his stringent resource development positions, to be a minor scapegoat. There are definite life signs there. He seems to want to play, too. And then there's Mike Deaver, who could be a real sleeper. Already this week, according to wire service reports, he has admonished White House guards and issued directives that there should be no more "slouching" at desks. He also has no real job definition, which annoys people in Washington.It makes it harder to decide who to fall in with when there is no clarity. David Stockman could end up being one. As director of the Office of Management and Budget, he has been placed in a highly visible job dealing with economics -- the No. 1 priority of this administration. The one stumbling block here is that many people like and admire Stockman. He has few enemies. And he may refuse to play.

An astute Reagan observer over many years has speculated that Reagan may be clever enough to force the Congress and the Democrats to play "sick child," to have the "episodes" in order to keep the family stable. Mother's children, in other words.

"If he's really clever," says this observer, "watch for Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), head of the House Ways and Means Committee, to get nailed to the cross."

If Ronald Reagan intends to allow some of those close to him to take the flack, who gets to play the good guys? Ed Meese, the new counselor to the president; Jim Baker, the new chief of staff; and Jim Brady, the new press secretary.

The other question, of course, is how Reagan will deal with his "sick children," his family scapegoats, the "episodes." Some of Jimmy Carter's critics felt that one of Carter's problems was that he was unable to "kill" the sick child or let him "die" in order to dispel the stresses in the family.

Richard Nixon was a master at that, though he never thought so. His problem was that eventually the entire family became "ill." After Watergate, talking about why he was compelled to get rid of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Nixon quoted Gladstone, who said that the first requirement for a prime minister is to be a good butcher. "A great leader," he said, "has to be a good butcher."

Will Ronald Reagan, good father, be a good butcher?

If he is, where does that leave Nancy?