THERE IS IN THIS TOWN an institution called The Ear. It is a gossip column, a terrific gossip column, and for the last several years it has sponsored a ball to raise money for the deaf. Like any charity ball, it has many sponsors, some of them socially prominent, some of them just prominent. One of them this year is George Gordon Battle Liddy.

You know, Gordon Liddy. The one who supervised the break-in at the Watergate. The one who volunteered to kill Jack Anderson. The one who wouldn't mind dying for Richard Nixon. The one who chose his wife the way some people choose a brood mare. The one who overcame his fear of rats by eating one and then, getting himself confused with a kite, tied himself to a tree during an electrical storm, and who later burned himself with a candle to prove that he could take the pain. That Gordon Liddy.

That Gordon Liddy is sponsoring the ball. He is down there on the list along with a whole lot of normal people who don't eat rats and none of them, as far as I know, has said boo about it. Not Sen. S. I. Hayakawa and not Sen. Larry Pressler and not the president of Time Inc., nor a newspaper publisher from across town and not a Catholic priest, nor even a lobbyist or two who are, in their own way, among the few in Washington who are honest about what they do.

Normally, you could credit Gordon Liddy's sudden rise in the Washington social swirl to a sudden lapse in taste, but it happens to be nothing of the sort. Instead, it is just another example of how Americans believe that all celebrities are equal -- Gordon Liddy and Red Buttons, for instance, or maybe Gordon Liddy and Jonas Salk. It doesn't matter.

One of the more unlikely people to spot the phenomenon recently was none other than Linda Lovelace. In what is one of the more ingenuous parts of her autobiography, she comments on how she was politely accepted everywhere she went -- parties, film festivals, private screenings at Hugh Hefner's digs. She is always expecting someone to approach her, say something about what she did on the screen, call her a slut or something. But it never happens. In what has to be the finest tribute ever written about Clint Eastwood, Lovelace reports that he sat down next to her at a screening and snubbed her. "I give him credit for that," she reports. "In fact, it made me respect him even more."

Me, too.

Eastwood, however, is an aberration. He conducted himself in a way few people would. Most of us take the view that a celebrity is the greatest of all things and it matters not at all -- well, maybe just a little -- how the celebrity became a celebrity. What matters is being one.

Not too long ago, for instance, Margaret Trudeau became celebrated for running away from home, having affairs and saying asinine things. Except for the running away, the same thing was true of Elizabeth Ray and, for a time, the legion of women who came out of the woodwork to declare, in the name of candor and book contracts, that they had had affairs with John F. Kennedy. Sometimes I think that if Charles Manson were not still in prison, he would be hosting his own talk show. It's as if being a celebrity is like being in love: You never have to say you're sorry.

The reason for this is the universal belief that everthing is show biz -- all of it. In some sense, Americans now view life as something that happens on television and celebrities of all kinds are just people who come and sit with Johnny or Merv or Tom. First you see a politician and then a commercial and then an actor and then a commercial and then a trained dog and then a commercial and then someone who has just written a book about how he killed his mother.It makes no difference to television or, for that matter, to gossip columnists, who the person is or what they have done. What matters is celebrity -- the ability to draw an audience and maybe, just maybe, entertain.

But there is such a thing as real life and that is the arena where Gordon Liddy worked. His job, bluntly stated, was to deprive you and me of our rights, to burgle and spy and bug; and had he not turned out to be such a magnificent bungler, things might have turned out much differently. At the moment, he recants nothing, apologizes for nothing and proclaims his willingness to kill or die for banal causes. Nevertheless, he gets accepted by "good" people who, like him, can't distinguish between show biz and real life. It's a match made in heaven.