If the business of America is business, the business of Washington is advice.

Thousands of people spend their days and fill their bank accounts simply "consulting." Plans, scenarios, suggestions and proposals fill the air. Each day a new cloud of ideas rises above the city. And not all of them are good.

For the last three weeks, the Reagan White House has been caught in the wake of what many see as a very bad idea. President Reagan's planned visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg today has been criticized by people ranging from Holocaust survivors to World War II veterans to members of Reagan's own administration. Last week, 257 members of the House of Representatives wrote to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl asking him to withdraw the invitation, and 82 senators cosponsored a resolution urging Reagan to reconsider the visit. The House passed a similar resolution Tuesday, 390 to 26.

Because this controversy has suggested an administration insensitivity toward victims of the Holocaust, it may be in a category of its own. But in one respect, it is a familiar Washington story. A politician wants to send a message to the country, to demonstrate a point. He listens to his staff. He makes a decision and acts on it. And with all those policy advisers, with all the image crafters, with all the advance work, a piece of poor advice makes it to the Oval Office and explodes.

And then the people watching the news can only wonder, "Why didn't they realize how awful this would look?"

"You sort of take your head in your hands when you're working for a president," says Harry McPherson, a lawyer and former adviser to Lyndon Johnson. "When you suggest something dramatic -- you tremble when you make such suggestions to a president, because the result can be so dreadful."

Every political Washingtonian seems to have a choice message that backfired, a favorite Good Idea that turned out to be a Bad One. There was Jimmy Carter's so-called "malaise speech"; Walter Mondale's announcement at the Democratic National Convention that if elected, he would raise taxes, and his choice of Bert Lance to head the Democratic National Committee. Were they obviously doomed acts or intelligent moves that just didn't work? It depends on whom you talk to. In Washington, failure is the final taboo and talking about it a little too painful.

"So much bad advice is well-meant," laments former White House political director Lyn Nofziger.

But good intentions aren't enough, and once the suggestion is voiced, the momentum begins. Reagan's White House has learned this lesson in the last few weeks: what started as a personal request from Kohl to Reagan quickly became a full-blown public relations disaster.

"How do you stop the president from shooting himself in the foot?" asks lawyer and former LBJ adviser Lee White. "You don't do it often. I don't know how often you're able to say to the president, 'Say, Mr. Emperor. You really don't have any clothes on.' "

And unless someone on the inside brings it up, the politician's lack of attire may not be noticed.

"It's very hard for a president to get candor up close," says James David Barber, political science professor at Duke University and author of "The Presidential Character." "Not many answer as Dean Acheson did when Lyndon Johnson asked him plaintively, 'Why don't people like me?' and Acheson responded, 'Because, Mr. President, you're not a very likable man.' "

Not only does no one want to bring unpleasant news; sometimes, no one in the inner circle realizes there's any bad news out there. The country they are writing the speeches for is not necessarily the same country that will hear their words.

"The conventional wisdom is probably true," says Marty Kaplan, a speech writer for Mondale's campaign and now an executive at Walt Disney Productions. "You do get isolated at the top. Part of it is self-protection. You can't possibly function with 1,000 voices around you."

Bill Moyers, LBJ's press secretary and now a CBS News commentator, says, "There is now too much information, too many sources, too many conduits. The president is both over-informed and poorly informed."

Isolation from the world outside the campaign plane, Kaplan thinks, allowed Mondale and his advisers to assume the public no longer connected Bert Lance with the questions about his personal finances that led to his resignation as Carter's director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1977. Big mistake.

"There were a number of people who believed in the summer of 1984 that Bert Lance was thought of in the way the chairmen of southern states' Democratic parties thought of him," says Kaplan. "Whereas the truth is, most of the American people thought of Bert Lance in the same way they thought of him in the summer of 1977."

So Mondale's attempt to reach out to the South failed and undercut the enthusiasm that had followed his choice of Geraldine Ferraro as running mate.

"There are many cases represented in mythology in which the king disguises himself and goes out to talk with the people," says Barber of Duke University. "It's in Shakespeare's 'Henry V' -- that hunger of chiefs to be able to tap into the ordinary discourse."

Searching for news from outside the Oval Office, Jimmy Carter went to Camp David in July 1979 and met with a series of Washington outsiders -- representatives of "the people." He incorporated their comments into his speech on the energy crisis that spoke of an American "crisis of confidence." Soon after the talk, which came to be known as the "malaise speech," Carter promoted Hamilton Jordan to chief of staff and the Cabinet and top White House staff all offered to resign. Some foreign journalists, familiar with parliamentary governments, interpreted the mass offer of resignation as a sort of vote of no confidence in Carter, and it played equally badly among many Americans.

"That speech led to a very embittered battle, probably the most embittered, within the staff," says lawyer Stuart Eizenstadt, a former Carter adviser. He and Vice President Mondale "thought it was a mistake to be perceived as blaming the American people," Eizenstadt says, but advisers Pat Caddell, Gerald Rafshoon and press secretary Jody Powell "felt there was a malaise in the country and the president had to call attention to it.

"It is now commonly accepted that the speech was a disaster, but it was actually what followed that was a disaster. The malaise speech was well received -- his polls went up -- but then he tried to follow up and demonstrate his control over the Cabinet. It showed a lack of control and a government out of control and it backfired. It stepped on the headlines of the speech. They wanted it to look like the administration was getting a fresh start. Instead, it was a mess. I'm told that that is what led Ted Kennedy to make his run."

Richard Neustadt, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and adviser to John Kennedy and LBJ, says, "Even if you dislike the malaise speech, you can say, 'Well, he deliberated on it and decided to do it.' But then you had to orchestrate the thing right. Instead, they orchestrated it just wrong."

And the message that went out was exactly the opposite of what Carter intended.

"I think one thing that sometimes happens is you're concerned about avoiding a particular problem, and your mind is so focused on that, that you look past other pitfalls," says former senator and presidential candidate George McGovern. Reagan, he thinks, was so intent on satisfying Kohl, he forgot to "think about America. His duty is to the American people first.

"I had something of that in the selection of a running mate in 1972. By 4 o'clock in the afternoon on the day after the presidential candidate has been chosen , you've got to have someone. After four or five people have turned you down, you begin thinking in terms of a deadline and you pick someone who might have a problem."

And, of course, there was a problem with McGovern's choice, Sen. Thomas Eagleton.

Not all mistakes are the result of decisions made on the fly. Mondale's announcement that as president he would raise taxes had been studied and debated before he decided to go ahead with it. Now, many see it as one of his campaign's worst moves.

"Interesting case," says Graham Allison, dean of the Kennedy School of Government. "It was not an incredible idea, but he had considered it carefully. If it had succeeded, we would have said it was courageous. But I think, looking at the dynamics of elected politics and the images that evoked, you could have said at the time it was a mistake. The Reagan people were trying to find a way to wrap taxes -- 'tax and spend' -- around Mondale and they were having trouble doing it, and Mondale sort of grabbed it for himself."

But Kaplan thinks Mondale's announcement would have been seen as a wise move if questions had not arisen about the personal finances of Geraldine Ferraro's husband, John Zaccaro.

"I think that did work, and could well have continued to work had not the Ferraro-Zaccaro news cut across the message," he says. "We had had 10 days of Reagan on the run. There were a good solid 10 days of network news and magazine covers of the Reagan crowd in total disarray. What happened was that got overshadowed by the Ferraro-Zaccaro news."

People are uncomfortable talking about the bad advice they've received or given. The receivers worry about seeming to blame their staff; the givers worry about looking dumb. Off the record, the person everyone blames will say, "No, I always knew it was a terrible idea!" On the record, all is hazy qualification.

Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) knows how to handle the issue: be succinct, talk through a spokesman and don't try to avoid the obvious.

"The best advice he ever got was, 'Don't drink coffee or smoke,' " a spokesman for Goldwater says, reading a note the senator had scribbled. "The worst advice he ever got was to run for president in 1964."

Enough said.

Of course, the least painful sort of mistaken advice is the advice not taken. During the 1968 riots Harry McPherson wrote a memo to Lyndon Johnson suggesting the president visit the distressed inner city of Newark.

"Almost as Churchill had gone into Coventry after the bombing," explains McPherson. "He would show the country was not falling apart, that the president could go anywhere."

McPherson got the memo back inscribed with the familiar "L" for Lyndon, Johnson's sign that it had been read.

"He never asked me about it, so I assumed he didn't think it was so hot," says McPherson. "A president receives all kinds of ideas."

Lee White says of LBJ, "Johnson did have a way of sort of turning public relations gold into crap without any effort," but remembers a time when his administration avoided a potential public relations catastrophe by catching the slip of a "literal-minded White House assistant."

Johnson asked a group of civil rights leaders to the White House for Lincoln's Birthday, White says. "People who are invited to the White House have to have some kind of security clearance. Sure as hell, that list went over to the FBI -- there wasn't one who hadn't been in jail. The literal-minded assistant tried to throw out all the names. That really wouldn't have been a very useful thing to have done. We managed to catch that -- it could have turned into something really ugly."

Lee Atwater, former Reagan White House deputy political director, laughs when he talks about the advice he gave Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) when Gramm was still a Democratic congressman. A vocal advocate of Reagan's economic policy in 1981, Gramm was kicked off the House Budget Committee by the Democratic leadership and in 1983 he decided to switch parties and run for his seat as a Republican in a special election. Reagan told him to go ahead with the switch, but soon after, Atwater called with somewhat different advice.

Gramm says Atwater told him, " 'Look, we've looked at all the numbers. No Republican has ever gotten more than 34 percent in your district. I believe you're viewing this thing as some sort of moral issue, not a political one.' Every expert I talked to gave me the same advice.

"Anyway, I won that race. I guess you'd have to say after the fact it was bad advice. Before the fact, you could have said it was good."

Which is the problem with bad advice -- often it looks so good, and before anyone catches sight of the flaws, it's too late.

"You have people who can't take no for an answer," says consultant and former Carter adviser Gerald Rafshoon. "They keep coming back and back and back. The advisers too often are more fervent in their advocacy than those who are against it."

Consultant John Sears, who was campaign manager for part of Reagan's 1980 campaign, says, "Down in the bureaucracy, something gets going. By the time it gets to the top where someone should say 'Wait,' it's got so many big signatures on it, no one stops to say 'No.' "

And when a stupid idea has already started its trip through the bureaucratic pipeline, what to do?

"You try to discover who is responsible," says Jerald ter Horst, director of public affairs for Ford Motor Co. and White House press secretary under Gerald Ford. "You attempt quickly to talk to the person or memo that person as quickly as you can. Once things get under way, the concrete tends to harden very quickly."

And a mistake, given room, grows and takes on significance beyond its own existence.

"When you do one thing wrong, then everything is said to go wrong," says Kaplan. "You set up a context of mistakes, insensitivities, bloopers, 'lost his touch.' After Carter did Bert Lance, if he used the wrong name for a congressman at a public function, that mistake became a story. Look at the way the Nicaraguan aid to the 'contras' vote and the budget battle is seen through the prism of Bitburg."

Kaplan points to Mondale's campaign appearance at a Labor Day parade in New York City where the streets were almost empty of spectators as the "classic example" of this phenomenon.

"Because of that," he says, "the microphone in Long Beach, California, late that day that didn't work became an example of the 'former juggernaut in disarray.' Had the parade gone even adequately well, nobody would have mentioned the microphone."

Catch it before it's public, and if you can't, get it immediately after, say people who know. Then, admit everything, as Reagan did when he accepted responsibility for the death of 241 Marines in Beirut.

"America loves confessions," says Marty Kaplan. "I've often thought there is nothing which America will hold against anyone as long as you say you're about to check into the Betty Ford Clinic. 'I was weak. I made a mistake. I've changed my mind. I'm going to get help and get better.' That's what people like.