Scale is everything, of course. How pleased we are to see an elephant trot along and skid on a flea. Haw. The difference in scale enchants us. And when the great 40-foot diorite statue collapses from a frost crack in the ankle, there is not a sane human in the world who does not perk up a bit.

Now the chief reason people get mad at the press, I am certain, is that papers endlessly report gross examples of things out of scale, and our surprise, dismay or fury (depending) is directed at the bearer of the news.

The real reason we react badly to the Hinckley case (he is the man who shot President Reagan) is the disproportion between the crime and the punishment. It has nothing whatever to do with insanity. The man is obviously insane, and if anybody ever doubted it, it was clinched the night he phoned reporter Laura Kiernan. Said he feels bad that press secretary Brady did not move two inches away, to miss the bullet to his brain. A sane Hinckley would have said he was sorry he was ever born and left Brady out of it.

A sane man would have known the nation hopes never to hear of Hinckley or his suffering family or any of the rest of the damned mess ever again. As it is, I appear to be the last columnist in captivity to mention the man, and I apologize for doing so now, except that he is a fairly dazzling example of the gulf between crime and consequences. Virtually everybody would understand chopping his head off and setting it on a pike at the entrance to the Capitol, but when we stray too far from Nature's Way we pay for it in smoldering resentments. This is an error the great Elizabeth did not make when she dealt with that wretched queen of Scotland.

There is an equal abyss between heroism and reward, equal to the gap between crime and retribution, and we read about that every day in the papers, too.

There is an outfit called American Academy of Achievement that honors (or dishonors, depending on your point of view) those who achieve greatly. They had the gall, recently, to "honor" Lenny Skutnik, the fellow who leapt into the Potomac to save the drowning woman when the plane crashed.

It is wrong, to begin with, for an obscure bunch of loons to presume to honor a hero in any ceremonial way. It is far wronger to include in the same list of honorees some pleasant lad who has made a go of an ice-cream company.

The difference of scale between founding a company of no consequence whatever to the nation or any citizen in it, and risking your life to save a drowning woman, is a pretty spectacular difference.

It is the elephant-flea difference, and the difference is a source not only of humor but (when the scale is switched around just a little) of anger.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with founding an ice-cream parlor or factory, and in some circles (ice-cream manufacturers, say) it may even be regarded as a splendid achievement.

In no circle whatever does it balance with personal heroism of the highest character. This disproportion produces the same sort of anger the Hinckley verdict did and for the same reason: the scale is insane.

The defect of scale is not much remedied by a comment of some Achievement loon who observed, apparently with a straight face (and this may be the place to point out that insanity is not limited to criminals), that maybe the hero of the Potomac was not anything gorgeous like the president of AT&T (a corporation) or a hockey player (one who sails about on ice in order to catch a nice puck in the teeth, one hopes) but that old Skutnik is just a little guy doing the best he can.

The folk of the capital, as distinct from the imbeciles of American Achievement, do not consider Skutnik a little guy doing the best he can. They consider him a man graced to an exceptional degree (perhaps by God) to flare for an instant with the brightest fire any man is ever capable of.

We do not much like, if I may take the liberty of guessing the tone of the capital, having him patronized, since we have not done so in his own town, and we do not care all that much for having him insulted by being on the same platform of achievement with a bunch of fat, or for that matter skinny, minor achievers of the ice game. The disproportion stinks.

This may also be the place to observe the unintentional insult conveyed by saying the gentleman of the Potomac is an example of a man who "cares." We do not, I think, give one fried fandango about men who "care." They mainly sit on their butts. We are impressed, on the other hand, by a man who gets off his and lays his life on the line for the helpless. As a wit once said, there is no greater love than this. And I, for one, will thank idiots not to equate it with making it big in ice cream.