THE WOMAN AND I are caught in a triple lie.

She is a friend who has recently had an affair with a male friend of mine. She didn't tell her husband about the affair, which is lie No. 1. The man she had the affair with swore to her that he didn't tell me, which is lie No. 2. And as we sit eating lunch, she is about to maneuver me into lie No. 3 by unexpectedly telling the truth: "I had an affair. Do you know about it?"

Instantaneously, I calculate how to lie. Do I break a promise to her lover that I wouldn't reveal his revelation? Or do I, like Richard Nixon, stonewall, stick to the lie at hand? In a millisecond, I decide.

I lie. Very convincingly, I think.

I look into her eyes and ask, "Whatever made you think I knew that?" Like a method actor, I reach into my memory for how I would react if I were telling the truth -- vague moral outrage at being confronted, a slight drop in the pitch of my voice. I lean into the table for earnest emphasis. She looks at me intensely, and an impish smile crosses her face. Suddenly, I realize that I should have told her the truth. We are friends. She would not have judged me by a single lie. My lie, her lover's lie, her own lie -- our circular bond of lies -- would probably have seemed humorous to us all.

Then it hits me: Her husband wouldn't see any humor in our little me'nage a` trois of lies. Because for every successful lie, there must be a dupe. He is the dupe. And nobody likes to be a dupe.

Thinking about him, I feel small and slimy.

FLASH TO THE BIG PICTURE, 1987, the Year of Lying Dangerously.

Did Ronald Reagan feel small and slimy? Did Joe Biden feel small and slimy? Did Pat Robertson, Gary Hart, John Sasso, Jim and Tammy Faye, By Golly Ollie, Adm. John Poindexter, Elliott Abrams, Robert McFarlane, the Hon. Mario Biaggi, Sandpaper Joe Niekro, the boys in the odometer department at Chrysler, the gang at Beech-Nut, William J. Casey, the Wall Street insiders . . . Did these people feel small and slimy for helping to create not just one dupe, but a whole nation of dupes?

I think not. They'd deny they ever told a lie (the word "lie" is so definitive) and then they'd demand elabora-tion: What is truth anyway? And what is a "lie"? Are all lies bad? Or are some lies good? And outside a court of law, isn't the only real test of a lie whether the sovereign public of America's voters, gawkers and purchasers is enraged by any particular deception, obfuscation, distortion or false denial?

Expediency, whatever sells, is the final test.

But remember, every lie demands a dupe. And dupes get even.

They pay a price, but they get even.

The dupes -- the people, that is -- have responded to this year's deceits (and to a world in which deception now seems routine and cavalier) with the only power at their disposal: They have stopped believing anything at all.

They don't believe their politicians, of course. But they don't believe their journalists, either. They don't believe their spies or their generals. They don't believe their employers, who don't believe their employes. They certainly don't believe Madison Avenue or Wall Street. They don't believe TV. In varying degrees, they don't believe the clergy, doctors, cops, lawyers, car dealers (except Joe Isuzu), insurance agents, bankers, real estate agents, contractors, auto mechanics, stockbrokers, undertakers, labor leaders or business executives.

Frankly, people are fed up: A U.S. News & World Report poll this year found 70 percent of Americans dissatisfied with current standards of honesty, and a Washington Post poll done for this issue of The Post Magazine found that 44 percent of Washington-area residents believe people are less honest today than they were 10 years ago. Satirist Mort Sahl captures the tenor of the times with this joke: "George Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and Ronald Reagan can't tell the difference."

In the '80s, we've gone beyond cynicism, which always assumes the worst, to the Age of Disbelief, in which people shake their heads, shrug and despair that they, like Mort Sahl's Reagan, can ever tell fact from fiction. Truthfully, do we really need a B1 bomber? Who knows? Will the car mechanic lie about the repairs you need, will the bank lie about the closing costs? Who knows? But be ready, always ready.

Speaking for millions of America's dupes, this is not paranoia. This is tired, angry people realizing reluctantly that they no longer live in a world of friends and neighbors and families, but a world of associates, clients and customers who will look them in the eye, smile -- and lie like a rug. In this kind of world, people have learned to approach not only their congressman, but also their insurance agent, stockbroker, undertaker and newspaper reporter with the skepticism once reserved for, say, a used-car salesman.

This is what modern people have sadly concluded: Greed is the universal motive, sincerity is a pose, honesty is for chumps, altruism is selfishness with a neurotic twist, and morality is for kids and saints and fools.

These are Somber & Serious matters, and they have made 1987 a boon year for philosophers intoning over the corpse of American morality. But those who believe Americans lie more today because people have abandoned morality -- as religious fundamentalists and some philosophers argue -- miss an important point: They blame the victims -- the dupes, the people -- for crimes beyond their control.

HONESTY IS THE QUALITY 94 PERCENT of Americans say they value most in a friend. No other quality is even close. Not surprising, really. Nobody wants to be a dupe. It's a truism that the issue of "character" reigns supreme in American politics today. TV has personalized our distant leaders, from President Reagan to Lee Iacocca to Jim and Tammy Faye, all of whom manipulate TV to enter our homes, to emote a telegenic empathy, to make us think of them as real people. They are after votes or sales or souls. So Americans have responded by holding these leaders to the standards real people use to judge real friends.

And among real friends, lying is the worst sin. It forces the dupe to wonder about all he has taken naively on faith and causes him to filter every new piece of information through a keener skepticism, making the standard of truth for the exposed liar even tougher. As in the aphorism, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." But whether we are angry at a lying friend depends on his motive: Did he lie to protect us, or himself? The same question is asked of Ronald Reagan when he lies about negotiating with terrorists or Joe Biden when he lies about his class rank.

It baffles people that 66 percent of Americans believe Ronald Reagan is an honest man -- at the same time 65 percent of Americans believe he was lying about the Iran-contra affair. That's no contradiction. It's people giving a good friend another chance. But be assured the next time Reagan looks us in the camera's eye, we will more quickly see the actor's studied shrug, the stage-set sincerity. Not because Reagan has changed, but because his lie, once exposed, has changed us.

Let's not pretend that lies from leaders are new. But Machiavelli never did "Nightline." And that's the big difference today -- the lightning speed with which lies are exposed. Since World War II, we've seen the lies of the Gary Powers spy plane incident, the Bay of Pigs, the Gulf of Tonkin, the Vietnam body counts, Watergate, the CIA (covert revolutions, domestic spying, etc., etc., etc.), the corporate slush funds of the '70s, Iran-contra, Wall Street's trading scandals, Jim and Tammy Faye, Hart, Biden, Robertson. All exposed, all taking a toll: In 1958, 73 percent of Americans believed the government usually did the right thing -- compared with 48 percent in 1987.

Yet trust in government isn't the only trust we've lost. Because we live and work in what seems ever unraveling and befuddling complexity today, disbelief has seeped into every corner of daily life.

BE HONEST: ISN'T IT EASIER TO LIE TO A stranger? Not only is there little risk of being caught, but who cares if you get caught? You'll never see the guy again. Say you're looking to buy a new car, going from dealer to dealer on the Beltway, negotiating for the best price. You tell each salesman that a salesman up the road has given you a price $200 below your best price. He'll never find out you lied. And if he does, who cares? You'll never see him again. Too bad the principle applies in reverse.

Reader's Digest sent a man across the country last spring to test the oft-questioned honesty of auto mechanics. Before he arrived at each garage, the driver loosened one spark plug wire -- and the lying commenced. At only 28 percent of the 225 garages visited was the loose spark plug wire correctly diagnosed. At more than half the garages, the man was cheated -- sold parts he didn't need for repairs he didn't need or charged for repairs that were never even done. Like the man negotiating a car deal around the Beltway, what did the mechanics care? They'd never see the guy again.

The cost of each phony repair: as much as $500.

The Reader's Digest sting also confirmed what everybody already knows: Big-city mechanics are much quicker to cheat you than small-town mechanics are.

"The basic rule of thumb about lying," says psychologist Paul Ekman, the author of Telling Lies, "is don't lie to anyone you want to have a continuing relationship with. The cost of lying is the loss of trust." Unfortunately, it follows that if you don't care about a lasting relationship, truth is no big deal. After all, who expects the truth in a singles bar?

Put another way: Anonymity breeds contempt.

The grandfather of a friend of mine used to own an Oldsmobile dealership in a small town. One day, a man brought back a new car he'd recently bought and said the engine was shot at only a few thousand miles. My friend's grandfather asked, "George, did you mistreat that car?" When George said he didn't, my friend's grandfather invoked the manufacturer's warranty and replaced the engine. Compare that tale of trust with this story: I once bought a new car, and when the salesman trying to close the deal offered to rustproof the car for $150, I asked what he usually charged. He said, "We charge as much as we can get, sometimes $500." He didn't flinch, and his cynicism left me with an insidious message: He'd cheat me if given half the chance. The anonymity that breeds contempt is played out every day in such mundane indignities.

Some personal stories: I wanted my son to go to a school outside my neighborhood and began asking around about how to get school district permission for this. Don't bother, I was told by many parents and even a grade school principal. Lie about my address. The school bureaucrats would never find out. Everybody does it, they said. A while ago, I was filling my car with gas when the pump didn't stop on full and gas spilled all over me. The seemingly shocked station owner said the pump had never overflowed before. A few weeks later, I was in that station when another man also got soaked by the pump that had never overflowed before.

On a larger scale: A quarter of corporate executives polled in one 1985 study said they had hired people in the last year who had misrepresented their credentials. In another study, about 20 percent of 400 applicants for blue-collar jobs, when confronted with polygraph results, admitted lying on their applications. Finally, a study this year accused 47 scientists at two major university medical schools of producing misleading academic papers.

What's a person to believe?

A TIME MAGAZINE COVER STORY THIS year asked, "Whatever Happened to Ethics?" In it, moral thinkers argued that we no longer teach kids enough of the old moral values of honesty, truthfulness, selflessness. A chorus called for more teaching of moral values to slow the supposed rise in selfishness reflected in, say, the Wall Street scandals or the yuppie invasion. Who could disagree that it's good to teach kids honesty and social responsibility in grade school? But implicit in the argument is this view: America's ethical crisis can be resolved by simply teaching people right from wrong.

Garbage.

What the moralists ignore is that people today distrust one another more readily and lie and deceive more willingly for good reason -- as a sensible, realistic reaction to lying politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen and, more important, as a reaction to a rising helplessness that has come with the big, anonymous monster we call modern life. As ever, that sense of helplessness is strongest at the bottom of the American heap: People who earn less than $12,000 a year are far more likely to believe that others often tell serious lies than are people who earn more than $50,000 a year, a 1985 ABC/Washington Post poll showed. Likewise, black Americans are far more likely than white Americans to believe that people often tell serious lies.

But poor people and black people are not alone in their feelings of helplessness. So many of the changes in America in recent decades have made everyone -- rich, poor, black, white -- feel more helpless. Move to New York from the country and it won't be long before you stop saying hello to strangers in the elevator. You are helpless to keep this from happening. New conditions, new behaviors. In depression-racked Iowa, farmers who had never told a lie today tell creditors their livestock has been lost on the range, when the farmers have actually slaughtered and eaten it. And farm bankers, who once loaned money on a firm handshake, today require the standard mountain of paperwork. New conditions, new behaviors.

People lie, cheat, steal more today not so much because they don't know right from wrong, but because in big, bureaucratized, corporatized, impersonal America, it's harder and harder to do the right thing and easier and easier to do the wrong thing. When people feel deceived by leaders and institutions, it's easier for them to deceive in return. And face it, people who don't know each other just don't care as much about each other. Yet politicians and the madmen of Madison Avenue keep pleading that they care about us as . . . people.

But the dupes don't believe it. They can't really do much about it, but they don't have to believe it either. And disbelief is their ultimate power.

The power of disbelief, for instance, helped cause the 1986 rush to federal tax reform: The IRS feared that public cynicism about tax inequity was so widespread it might lead to a massive breach in taxpayer honesty. But even with all the hoopla about reform, Americans many times fooled still wonder if it's a trick: Only a quarter of Americans say they expect to pay less in federal taxes as a result of the "reforms." One presidential candidate, Illinois Democratic Sen. Paul Simon, is so confident that many Americans will be outraged at their '87 tax bills that he has staked out his political claim as one of only three U.S. senators to have voted against the initial tax reform package.

He is counting on the dupes' revenge.

ENTER JOE ISUZU.

So small and slimy a guy, with the smile of Snidley Whiplash, the empathy of Slap Maxwell, the integrity of Bob Forehead. So small and slimy, yet so transparent that even the sweetest, most naive young thing can recognize immediately that he's a lying sleaze. Joe says it all: He promises to sell a car that gets 112 miles to the gallon on the highway -- while "He's Lying" flashes on the screen beneath his grin. Joe is the turning of some corner in the American psyche to a place where weary, angry, disgusted people have finally concluded they can't trust anybody, nobody, nada -- except maybe their spouse, their mother and their kids, maybe.

Joe Isuzu is, to borrow a phrase, the new heartbeat of America.

Like tax reform, Joe is a dupe's revenge. Because to sell cars, Isuzu Motors has stooped to parodying the very system of which it is a part. The commercials remind us how low public trust has sunk, especially among Americans born after WWII. Consider this bumper sticker on the car of a young man in his twenties: "Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill."

A recent opinion poll of Californians showed that people age 18-29 lie, cheat or steal more often than people age 30-49, and these people lie, cheat or steal more often than people older than 50. Examples: Younger people are more likely to use the company phone for private calls, call in sick when they aren't, pilfer company supplies, keep money given them in error, steal items from a store or hotel. All of these lead to a single conclusion: Younger people don't respect the major institutions in their lives.

There are two ways to look at this: Younger people have failed their institutions or their institutions have failed them. Maybe it's as simple as the moralists say: Young people are bad, the spoiled children of prosperity. They grew up doing their "own thing" and they have become self-absorbed, narcissistic adults. I suspect there's a grain of truth in this. But the seductively simple explanation ignores that young people are different from their parents because the world they live in is different.

Dinah Shore doesn't sell cars anymore.

Joe Isuzu sells cars.

WHY DO GOOD PEOPLE LIE?

Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok, in her book Lying, says good people lie when they don't see the harm their lies do. And in so anonymous a nation, a lie's harm is often easy to ignore. Bok says we must do a better job of making everyone, leaders especially, understand the horrible power of their lies. The harm isn't only that someone might buy a lousy product from a lying salesman or vote for a lying politician. The harm is that a lie steals the dupe's trust. As in the refrain of the deceived lover: "How can I ever trust anyone again?"

But because so much modern distrust grows from sweeping change past anyone's control, the behavior of those who can make a difference -- from presidents to preachers to corporate execs to lawyers and doctors and admen -- must be at least as important as moral training in grade school. When those who would be kings lie, they don't only withhold a single truth, they tap the already dwindling repository of public trust. When Franklin Roosevelt said in 1940 that he'd send no Americans to fight abroad, it's doubtful he realized this lie would someday be used to prove to college kids that all politicians lie. Some of this year's deceivers have moaned that standards for leaders are inhumanly high. But considering the harm even the little lies of leaders do to public trust, maybe standards still aren't high enough.

Yet the worst lies, the most insidious lies, probably aren't those of politicians, which people expect. The most insidious deceits are those of corporations and government bureaucracies -- because these deceits are cut from the Orwellian cloth of complexity and red-tape obfuscation that make so many Americans feel so helpless today. When a company like Beech-Nut cheats babies of vitamins for a profit, it does more harm to the public trust than any lie from a politician. And when NASA -- a bureaucracy with a sacred national mission -- deceives, distorts, withholds and denies to cover its backside, can bigness and anonymity ever be trusted?

So the dupes are rebelling.

Gary Hart may complain that uncovering the human foibles of political candidates trivializes politics, but polls show that 52 percent of Americans rank "honesty and integrity" as the single most important quality in a president. Nothing else is even close. People have just had enough -- and not only in politics. The Naisbitt Group, which tracks social trends in America, has found that one of today's "overarching megatrends" is a public demand for human accountability behind the anonymous decisions of corporations and bureaucracies. That's why when Lee Iacocca stands up and says, yes, Chrysler cheated customers by disconnecting the odometers of executives' company cars and then selling them as new, he does more than salvage Chrysler's image. He makes people trust that someone, somewhere behind that massive bureaucracy, is in charge and will do the right thing. Maybe a PR man picked Iacocca's tactic. But tactic or not, he still put money in the bank of public trust. Tactic or not, the dupes will reward that kind of behavior with trust, maybe even business.

Wouldn't it be nice to see Ronald Reagan take Lee Iacocca's PR tack for a change, stand up and say, yes, some of the dozens of people leaving his administration amid scandal are bums and he hopes they go to the slammer. Stand up and say, yes, Alexander Haig and Richard Burt spoke too quickly when, relying on sketchy and disputed evidence, they accused the Soviets of using chemical weapons -- "yellow rain" -- in Asia. What if Reagan actually apologized to the Soviets?

The dupes might just like that.

IS IT SO OUTRAGEOUS TO EXPECT of leaders a standard of truth that is at least as demanding as the standard friends expect of each other? Friendship works on trust, and so does a nation. Is it the people's fault that only a boob would believe a single word from the CIA? How long would you trust a friend who'd lied to you as often as the CIA has lied to America? Is it the people's fault that they've become cynical about lawyers, doctors and other professionals who seem to spend more time protecting their own than weeding out the incompetent, self-serving or underhanded among them? Is it the people's fault that they must see photos of the Iranian gunboat with mines on its deck before they'll believe their own Navy? Recall the remark of presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy when Lyndon Johnson was about to use an attack on American troops in Pleiku as a pretense to expand the war in Vietnam. "Pleikus are like streetcars," Bundy said, meaning that minor incidents that can be used to rationalize the use of military power come along regularly. Two decades later, his dark cynicism still evokes a shiver.

People have good reason to disbelieve. But this is the key: Americans' failure of trust rests at the institutional, not personal, level. In people's private lives, opinion polls show, truth between individuals is still more important than anything else. And 82 percent of Americans still say they don't need to tell serious lies to their spouses. This attitude of personal honesty is much the same for young and old, rich and poor, male and female. All of which means that America's crisis of disbelief is far more than a crisis of personal morality. We distrust one another mostly when we are acting in our institutional roles -- as politicians, lawyers, journalists, salesmen -- because we know that the institutions we all represent, despite the pieties, often care more for votes, profits or power than for people. And we know this from painful experience. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

If you want people's trust renewed, debate seriously how huge, cold corporations can win back the faith of workers and customers; how greed can be tempered in business schools, board rooms and labor unions; how admen can worship truth as well as sales; how companies can insist on honesty and fairness from their sales forces; how leaders can be made to see the destructive power of every lie, grand or petty.

Of course, these are moral questions. But moral questions that matter only if they lead to real changes in the institutions people now distrust, quite rightfully. Don't expect the dupes to rediscover trust otherwise. And remember Paul Newman's warning in "Cool Hand Luke": "Sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand." The power of nothin' -- the negative power to undermine and to subvert -- is the dupes' power. Remember what the dupes did to American automakers after "quality" was exposed as a lie? What they did to the pocketbooks of TV preachers after the Bakkers? What they did to America's ability to wage war after Vietnam? To the Republicans after Watergate?

The disbelieving dupes pay a price, all right, always looking over their shoulders for the next liar, always suspicious and hard-skinned. Perhaps the greatest price is that the dupes may be unable to recognize truth even when it is before them. But if the dupes don't believe, don't act, it is still the salesmen who are out of luck -- out of votes, out of sales, out of souls.

It is the dupes' ultimate power.

It is the dupes' revenge.

It is the frightening and the hopeful message of the Year of Lying Dangerously.

A FEW DAYS AFTER MY lunch with my woman friend, I decided to tell her I had lied to her when I denied knowing about her affair. She smiled the same impish smile I'd noticed at lunch. "You're a very good liar," she said. "I believed you." She paused. "You really are a good liar," she repeated, and I could see that the realization was sinking in. "And it makes me feel . . ."

"Like a dupe?" I asked.

"Yes, like a dupe," she said.

"Are you angry?"

"No," she said slowly, "not angry. But it does change the way I think of you. Not a lot, but it does change the way I think of you."

As ever, the lie -- my lie -- did not change me, but it did change her. It made her a dupe, and so she sees me differently. She will not trust me in the way she once did. Even if I am telling the truth, she will wonder. It is the price she pays. It is the price I pay.

For this I am to blame.

The liar is always to blame. ::