WE COME NOW to something called The Great Furniture Was in which the The Free State of Maryland in the person of the attorney general, a Mr. Stephen Sachs, has sued the former governor of the state, a certain Marvin Mandel, for the return of some furniture and othr items alleged to have been taken by the aforementioned Mandel when he left the governor's mansion under the stain of scandal and with we have been told, nearly $489 worth of dog food to feed his three pooches in the manner in which Mandel himself had become accustomed -- at the public trough.

This dispute, for that is what it is, has been going on for several months now. It started with an inventory and has ended with a lawsuit. The state contended that the Mandels made off with lots of items belonging to the state. The Manandels said that this was not the truth but then when the state sued it turned out -- darn it, Jeanne -- that some things did in fact belong to the state. They were returned and the former governor was pictured smoking his pipe, atching chairs and such disappear into a waiting moving van.

Now there are lots of thinks to be said about all this. The first, maybe, is that Marvin Mandel is past the point of being held responsible for differentiating between what is his and what belongs to the state. There is a long-standing tradition in Maryland that the governor takes what he wants and it should be remembered that after Spiro Agnew left office, some things were unaccountably found missing. It should also be remembered that this was considered uncharacteristic because Agnew was, it was universally believed, squeaky clean.

But not even Agnew took what Mandel is alleged to have taken. Among these items are Chippendale chairs and pieces of statuary and valuable glasses and such. (It should be remembered that the Mandels are virtually newlyweds.) Also allegedly taken is a whole bunch of booze, some $1,750 worth of the stuff which was cleared out, so we are told, by servants working under the orders of Jeanne Mandel.

Now you can stop here and wonder about the servants.Should they have followed orders they believed to have been wrong or should they have stopped in their tracks and refused to do a thing, saying, "This stuff belongs to the people of Maryland, Mrs. Mandel." I think not. But then I have never had any servants, not to mention $1,750 worth of booze, and I don't know what the proper thing is to do.

No matter. This is not the issue here. The issue is something else and that is the mentality of both the Mandels and the people who are criticizing Stephen Sachs, the attorney general. You don't have to be around the Mandels long to understand that in their own minds they think they had all this stuff coming. This is the way it is with some politicians, a perfect example being the wife of the major of the District of Columbia, Effi Barry, who, having ony earned something like a gross family income of $120,000 a year, thinks the people of Washington should buy a residence for the mayor. I think they should meet the Mandels -- they have so much in common.

The other thing to be said about all this is that it it no joke. The people have in the person of Stephen Sachs an anomaly for that state -- a public servant who is actually doing his job. It is his responsibility to sue Mandel and he is doing that. This for Maryland is aberrant behavior.

In the old days, this ever would have happened. The ruling political establishment would have pronounced the Mandels victims of some poor auditor and told them to keep the furniture -- a little gift. Never mind that it was bought with tax revenues. Never mind it was not theirs to take. Never mind it is not anyone's to give. In the old days, everyone was generous with the state's money.

But Steve Sachs is not. He is doing what he should be doing and people are laughing at him for it. Somehow it seems funny to have a public servant who is not playing favorites, who is making no exception for anyone -- even an ex-governor. For this allegiance to duty, Sachs is being made fun of and people, even this newspaper, call the flap The Great Furniture War. This is meant to tell you it is funny. Elements of the dispute are. But the dispute itself is not.

I, for one, have no idea who is right here -- Sachs or Mandel. All I know is that the day has come when a public official in Maryland is trying to say that there is a difference between being governor and beign above the law. This fight is not about furniture. It's about public trust and there's nothing funny about that.