THERE is a little bit of the late Frank Hague in all presidents. Hague, mayor of Jersey City and boss of Hudson County, once said of himself, "I am the law." In his case it was not so much a boast as a simple statement of fact, but in some politicians it is also a mentality.

Lyndon Johnson had it and so did Richard Nixon, but up to now Jimmy Carter seemed to be different. It took Ramsey Clark to bring out the Hague in Carter.

If anyone could, Clark could. He has a way of raising the hackles of people, of getting them to gnash their teeth and think thoughts of lynching. If Clark has a counterpart, it is Jane Fonda, and if he has a match, it is someone yet to surface, unless it is Jimmy Carter himself. So sanctimonious is Clark that when Carter said he was thinking of prosecuting him for going to Iran, Clark said he felt sorry for the president. That's the kind of thing Carter himself likes to say.

Clark also said some other things. He said he has a constitutional right to go to Iran and that neither Carter nor the Justice Department (which, incidentally, he used to head) had the right to stop him. In this he has something of an ally in Secretary of State Muskie, who said the Iranian travel ban was really put into effect to protect Americans. Ramsey Clark, having been to Iran and exited safely, obviously does not need any protection.

He also does not need any lesson in patriotism. He was not the first, nor will he be the last, to go to Iran. Others have been there before him, including Barbara Timm, the mother of a hostage. She also went in defiance of the president's travel ban and nothing has been done to her. In fact, she went to Iran shortly before the attempted rescue of the hostages and was there when it happened. She could have been held hostage herself in retaliation. She was not. Instead, she apologized to the Iranians for the entire affair. s

It was like scraping a fingernail on a blackboard. The sound of her aplogy seemed to shriek and screech and made me shiver with distate. It's awful to see an American apologize for the attempted rescue of other Americans illegally held prisoner in a foreign country. But Mrs. Timm said what she said and went home.

Now comes Clark. He did not aploogize for the American role in Iran, all these many years. He apologized for American support of the shah and the 1953 coup that brought him back into power. He apologized for the secret police, the tortures, and the way the shah made himself a senior partner in the country, taking a billion here, a billion there. The shah was one ruler who worked on commission.

It might have grated some to watch what Clark had to say. You may disagree with him or you might have thought he had no business saying what he said in Iran -- talking out of school and all that. But he was not the first American to say those sorts of things. Lots of people have. It's been in the newspapers and on television. It's not news to Iranians that there are Americans who appreciate why some Iranians feel so strongly about the shah.

So what's the damage? What did Clark and his colleagues do that was so bad? The answer, in short, is nothing. They gave away no secrets and they aided or abetted no enemy and they said nothing that others had not already said. Their "crime" is that they defied the president and made him look a bit silly. Congress does that all the time.

The travel ban as applied to Clark and his colleagues is not a national security measure nor some sort of protective device for Americans. It is an attempt to stifle debate. It is a way of dealing with dessent, with those who have something different to say about Iran and especially about Iran and especially about American relations with that country. What matters, after all, is not that Clark went to Iran, but what he said when he got there.

But what really matters is that Clark very publicly repudiated Jimmy Carter and his travel ban. The president in effect told Clark he couldn't go, but Clark went ahead. It doesn't seem to matter to Carter that the ban was a bad idea in the first place, probably unconstitutional, and that it was never intended to apply to the likes of Clark anyway -- a former high-ranking U.S. official who was invited to Iran. What seems to matter is this public snubbing. The president wants to nail him.

It's a bad road to start down. The president has got himself confused with the law. It is this mentality that soiled the reputation of Lyndon Johnson, and brought disgrace to Richard Nixon and made Frank Hague notorious. Hague was not, as he thought, the law. He merely abused it.