ONE OF THE REWARDS OF JOURnalism (it certainly has not been wealth) was meeting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It happened to me just once, at a news conference in New York where I, a student slumming in journalism for the day, got to ask the great man a question. It's not much, I know -- not the Normandy invasion, not a moon shot, not being there when Bobby Kennedy was killed . . . Not any of those things. Yet I think -- no, I know -- that some years from now people will ooh and aah when I mention that one day, when I was young, I met King.

I open this essay with what I hope is my evident admiration of King because what I have to say next is not so nice: He was not, really, a totally moral man, certainly not one in any conventional sense. By now, that's not news. We have it on the authority of the late Ralph Abernathy that King was indeed the philanderer the FBI said he was, and we now know he was a plagiarist as well. Maybe we ought not to have been surprised. Had he not been that sort of guy, had he not established a hierarchy of moral choices and decided that some tenets were worth breaking while others were truly worth one's life, he would not have been the man he was.

But I have to admit to getting a kick out of published reaction to the news that King had plagiarized, although I concede that I was somewhat shocked before I thought, "So what?" Others, though, took a somewhat different view. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for one, offered a kind of cultural explanation for King's plagiarism. This was something Southern preachers do all the time: "The first time they use somebody else's work, they give credit. The second time they say some thinker said it. The third time they just say it."

For others the plagiarism revelation almost certainly provided further evidence that King was immoral, a phony and a commie to boot. These people, though, have yet to surface. The sorts of attacks and criticisms of King that once were a staple of the polit- ical right are now heard no more. As far as I know, even the splenetic Patrick Buchanan was silent on the matter. Possibly he was bound and gagged by his newspaper syndicate and locked up for the weekend.

Nevertheless, it can safely be said that reaction to the plagiarism story fell into two main camps: one that said it meant nothing (Lowery et al.) and another that presumably thought it meant everything (the real King exposed . . . once again). There was yet a third camp or, maybe, campette. The King biographer David J. Garrow said King's plagiarism was indefensible but then, indefensibly, cited the Lowery explanation to excuse King. On the whole, though, Garrow took King to task.

It is at moments when people take a single aspect of a person and, standing back like an artist seeking perspective, say, Voila!, there he is in his entirety, that I think of my friend Sharon and how she instructed me one day in the use of the word "and" -- how "but" is sometimes inappropriately used in its place. King is a perfect example. He was not the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize BUT cheated on his wife. He is the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize AND cheated on his wife. To continue in that vein, AND he may have slapped a woman on the eve of his assassination (Abernathy says he did) AND he may have plagiarized AND . . . Well, more may yet come to light.

You would be surprised how hard it is for some people to use the word "and." Take, for instance, the case of Mr. Peter Rose, late of the Cincinnati Reds. Mr. Rose, an adjudicated tax cheat and gambler and, other than that, a virtual Renaissance man of low living, had to plead in a moment of high ignominy that his out-of-stadium indiscretions should not cost him the place in the Baseball Hall of Fame that he had earned with his bat and his all-around hustle. In his usual inarticulate way, Rose was asking that "and" be substituted for "but." We shall see.

Now in some ways, it's harder to decide what to do with Rose than with Martin Luther King Jr. This is because baseball, indeed all professional sports, has banned the use of the word "and" altogether. Thus it's not possible for a man to possess the reflexes of a sparrow AND the IQ of one. Dichotomies, complexities -- indeed, reality -- are verboten. An athlete must be an all-around something or other. Most of them, I trust, find it hard.

It's the same with politicians. Gary Hart fell to earth with a thud because it became impossible for some people to say, "He's smart AND he's a womanizer." Joe Biden had to drop out of the 1988 presidential primaries when it was revealed that he plagiarized a speech first delivered by the British politician Neil Kinnock. Once again, few could use the word "and." And Marion Barry sought to remain an elected official by saying, in effect, that he has been a marvelous mayor AND he has used drugs. The voters used "but" instead.

Maybe one of my rewards for going into journalism (it certainly won't be wealth) will be getting to reintroduce the word "and" into the American political and cultural lexicon and the concomitant realization that only rarely is a single characteristic in a person so odious that it changes "and" to "but." That change has not taken place with Martin Luther King Jr., though. His achievements were so great that no amount of "ands" can add up to a "but."