I know a woman who thinks Ed Meese didn't have to buy an expensive house when he moved to Washington to advise President Reagan. He could have rented a room somewhere for $200 a month, at least until he was able to sell his California house. Then he could have bought a house.

This is the same woman, I should disclose, who thinks the president should get one jet trip a year to California, and beyond that he could buy his own tickets. As she sees it, America has become one great water hole with now the wildebeests, now the giraffes, now the rhinoceroses waddling up to drink.

The lesson of Ed Meese's troubles -- not that the White House seems aware he has some -- is not quite what the fire-lady believes. What the Meese case surely demonstrates is the bind a fellow can get in if he fails to notice the power of cash.

He could not very well sell his California house before Ronald Reagan won, but once Reagan was ensconced up here Meese had to come along promptly. He couldn't sit out there three years trying to get a good price. Paying for two houses was more than he could quite manage.

Unlike the harsh-judgment lady I have mentioned, I do not think Meese was obliged to find a grate to sleep on when he moved here. His Washington house cost less than his California pad. It's not as if he promptly bought a $4 million house here, without two dimes to rub. No sir, the house is comparable to the house he had been living in before he was summoned to government service.

And I like to think that he had a few other things on his mind, once he got here, than real estate deals. He has said time and again that he didn't want to get all involved in the fine details of things that affected him personally. He wanted his energies saved for the work he was called to do for the White House and this great nation. (Applause.)

A special prosecutor was named to investigate Meese's deals and announced there was no ground for beginning a federal criminal prosecution. He did not say, one way or another, whether Meese is fit for the job of attorney general -- the investigation was about federal crime and nothing else.

The White House has regarded this as a full vindication of Ed Meese. Opponents of Meese, and of course they have political axes of their own, keep pointing out that a guy who never laid eyes on Meese before lends him $40,000 and then $20,000 and then promptly gets a government job. This kind of thing happens more than once, they keep hollering, and they love to point out the unusual promotion to colonel in the National Guard, which alters retirement pay.

Meese should not have touched with a pole any man who had lent him large sums of money and then got a government job. He should have said at the time that this man had lent him a lot of money. He should have excused himself from any comment, beyond saying he was obliged to that man for lending money.

Then there is that interest-free loan not reported that should have been, though Meese says that since no interest was involved he did not think it counted as a real loan.

And so on.

I think it entirely possible that Meese saw no connection between loans to him and a cushy government job for the lender. It is fully possible Meese was not aware of these minor figures and minor jobs, not in any alert way. A man who thinks often of $200 billion government deficits does not spend most of his time, after all, thinking of some relatively small loan to himself to tide him over until he can sell his California house.

But the thing to be learned here is that money is not to be taken lightly, for the simple reason it really can buy things, not just fancy gowns for ladies, but entry into otherwise closed circles.

Once when I quit a job I was at my wits' end. The kids' school bills were enormous (as I thought then) and my instinct was to find something, anything, to tide me over till I got another good job. I didn't have a single dime of income. Surely the thing to do was fetch the kids home, fire the cook, sell the tableware, encourage my wife to take in laundry, etc. I did start going door-to-door on business streets, trying to find a job as editor, office boy or any of the other few things I knew how to do. It took me 10 days to land a job I disliked, but I took it and did it as competently as I could, and things worked out all right.

But within that 10 days of anxiety I got a phone call from a guy who said he was authorized to offer me a generous annual income if I agreed not to leave the city and move elsewhere. I asked who was putting up the money and what I was supposed to do in return.

"Nothing. You aren't expected to do anything except stay here. I cannot tell you who is putting up the money, or even how many people are contributing."

Well, I'm not very smart about money, never having had enough to concern myself with it much, but I did know better than to accept a deal like that. What if it turned out later that the John Birch Society was footing the bill? Or the Communist league? Or the Mafia? Or some local tycoon?

I knew then as well as I know now that if somebody wants to pay your salary with no strings attached and with no requirements that you lift a hand in any way, then something is fishy. So I said no, because when people start handing out thousands a year to tide you over, you want to know who they are and what they want, even if they say they want nothing in exchange.

Neither Meese nor the White House sees what the problem is. That is because they are innocent men. They know their hearts are pure, they know they would all die before they trafficked in inappropriate favors. They cannot comprehend the low, ugly, suspicious natures of people who say hey, this won't do.

The near-universal prediction is that Meese will be confirmed by the Senate for the post of attorney general with a minimum of palaver. The man has been cleared, after all, by a special prosecutor. So what can possibly be the objection to this appointment?

Only this, I think: The man is too damned innocent to run the Justice Department, which sometimes has to deal with real crooks.