We have never tried and executed a president (as I reflected recently, revising for an instant a natural liberal horror of capital punishment). Such a course is not really the best when we have an Iran-contra case. The problem that so embarrassed and shocked the nation, selling arms to terrorists, running a little private war, making millions along the way -- all this will be a problem with any president long after Reagan has been forgotten.

Suppose the Metro Center subway station were blown to bits with great loss of life and temporary destruction of the system by which sensible people get to work. And suppose it turned out this was the work of Iranian terrorists who had planned it over a two-year period.

The first howl would be against the government's intelligence agencies. What do we pay them for, if not for advance warnings of things like this? It would do the government no good to remind us we do not have free entry to Iran. Intelligence chiefs would get nowhere saying they read the Tehran newspaper faithfully but saw no advance stories in it about blowing up our subway.

There would be a universal cry -- I would wonder publicly if the government did not have sense enough to infiltrate agents into Iran, and would certainly point out that in a nation so large, so rich and so strategic, and one that for years had been a rock of American security, there must be a great many people friendly to America. Why had we not tried to reach them, to support them, at least to the extent of keeping abreast of terrorist intentions?

But how, some spoilsport would ask, would I propose an actual American team accomplish this feat?

Well, hell, I don't know. That's what we have the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council for, to work out any little problems along the way. Don't bother me with that. But it's unthinkable that 894 Iranians had knowledge of the plot for two years and yet we were caught unprepared.

In such a case we would be more sympathetic to covert operations. The word "covert" by the way derives from "cover" and is pronounced the same way. A covered or hidden operation, but I suppose pronunciation is of secondary importance today.

The president, fully responsible for the Iran-contra mess, would smell much sweeter if his agents had uncovered a plot to destroy Metro Center, even if outrageous covert means had uncovered it. Even if there had been a cake and a Bible and all the rest of the baloney.

We want it both ways. We have half a million troops scattered across the world, we have aid programs to 100 countries -- more than most Americans can even name. We are the world's superpower in a way Russia is not, and there is scarcely a horse pasture on the globe in which we do not detect important American interests.

Such an empire is not going to be run on the principle of George Washington confessing he cut down the cherry tree. People are forever talking about the marvelous democracy of ancient Athens, and no doubt there are things to be learned from their history. One of their most brilliant men pointed out to his fellow citizens that Athens was an empire, a tyranny if you like, and maybe it was wrong to collect subservient states but it was certainly suicidal to let go now.

This is very much the position of our country. We do not enslave the states of our empire, but we certainly expect a degree of cooperation from them. We expect them not to get in the way of major American interests.

In this astoundingly complex spread of power, which in the nature of things cannot last indefinitely, as we are not ordained of God to swing the planet at our wrist, there are going to be ghastly contradictions, of which the Iran-contra mess is a pretty example.

We do not want our nation to stand for domineering military might, but we want to be able to defend our multitudinous interests. We do not want our nation to play footsie with Mafia hit squads, attempting assassination of heads of state. We do not want presidents who lie ("there was no exchange of arms for hostages") and we do not want Caseys, Norths and Poindexters (to say nothing of Reagans) authorizing and establishing little subgovernments accountable neither to the Congress nor the general public. We do not want a government that blabbers fine rhetoric about never comforting terrorists while secretly giving them weapons, whether before or after 200 American Marines are blown to hell.

We want it both ways, we want it every way, and we want it all accomplished without interfering with our $30,000 automobiles, our simple-minded entertainments with Vanna White.

Americans know they have no more to do with government than they had to do with selling arms to the ayatollah. Once every four years we rouse up a bit to vote for some actor or other, who looks okay ("he is believable, and you could imagine having a few beers with him any Friday night") and who has lassoed sufficient millions to afford saturation television spots, most of which assure us he is pro-everything and anti-sin. Having exercised this highest duty of citizenship, we are free to return to the pleasant life of our choice.

There may be rot in America, there may be death in the pot, but what are we supposed to do about it? Go to some meeting and miss "Miami Vice"?

All the same, we the people -- and our country gives arms to terrorists and runs little undeclared secret wars? We laugh it out, we eat it out, we drink it out, lest (as Donne says) that we should be converted and He should heal us.