IF WASHINGTON WERE a woman, it would have a reputation as easy.

Say something nice about it and it will do anything you want. Pay attention to it, and you have it in the palm of your hand. Throw it a kiss and it's yours. Flash it a smile and it goes weak in the knees. Invite it to dinner and it will, I swear, forgive everything that went before and forget everything that ever happened.

This is what is happening now with Ronald Reagan. Better press no man has ever had. The local papers and the vaunted national press corps, cynical in legend but clearly patsies for a little attention, have been writing up Ronald Reagan and his visit to town as if something has actually happened -- something substantive, that is.

The man has been hailed as a conquering hero. He simply won an election. He is being praised for the way he conducted himself. They were expecting maybe a boor? He has been complimented for visiting Congress, which is, after all, one-third of the government, praised for visiting the Supreme Court which is, after all, the other third, and complimented for going to the F Street Club to have dinner with a bunch of swell people, many of them Democrats, none of them what you might call the salt of the earth.

There is precedence for this silliness. More than six years ago Jerry Ford toasted his own English muffins. The press went crazy. He toasts! He butters! The inflation rate was unimpressed. Almost four years ago Jimmy Carter walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. The inflation rate was similarly unimpressed. No matter. The town went bananas. He walked! He actually walked! Put one foot in front of the other! Went all the way to the White House!

The papers wrote it up as if it were the passage of a bill. It was talked about as if it were what we like to call "a bold initiative." It was given the respect of an idea, a program. Jimmy Carter, it turned out, had few of those, but he sure could walk.

Symbolism is important. It is comforting to Washington, for instance, that in Ronald Reagan it will have a president who is open and friendly, who actually will go up to the Hill and deign to talk to the likes of Tip O'Neill. To Washington, this means something because that is precisely the sort of thing Jimmy Carter would not do. He abhorred Congress. He didn't know quite what to do with it.

It is the same with that dinner at the F Street Club. It is not the sort of thing Carter would have done. He and his people made a big production about not caring about Washington -- the town, its institutions, or its strange ways. They looked down on the place, considered it, in almost Agnewesque terms, effete and silly and somewhat un-American. Out there was America. Here was something else -- Georgetown or something. White wine and all of that.

So Reagan in a sense is playing off Carter and of course that is just what Carter did with Richard Nixon. (Jerry Ford, who almost doesn't count, did the same thing with Nixon.) Carter went out of his way to show that his would not be an imperial presidency. None of those opera buffo uniforms for the White House police. No "Hail to the Chief" whenever the chief happened to stand next to a band. He walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. He didn't lick inflation, though.

And that, of course, is what is important. The ability to lick inflation will probably make or break the Reagan administration. To the extent that the ability to deal cordially with Congress and the Washington establishment will help Reagan towards that goal, he is off to a good start. But the presidency is a lot more than going to dinner and being affable and this seems to be what Washington has forgotten.

What is missing is the hard edge of cynicism -- the sort of attitude that is supposed to be the state ethic of Missourians. We could use a little of it here. Instead, we seem to be getting a total lapse of critical faculties, so much so that the cliches and canards of transition times immemorial are being said, repeated and reported as if they actually meant something. This has got to be the umpteenth time the vice president has been promised an office in the White House and the president-elect has promised to return to cabinet government, and great vows and holy oaths made to return the foreign policy portfolio to the State Department where everyone agrees it belongs.

The adoration of Ronald Reagan does no one any good. It doesn't serve the people and it doesn't serve Reagan himself. The public remains uninformed and the president-elect blissfully content when he should be, at the very least, anxious. This thing will not be easy. But what is worse is that Washington has set a standard for Ronald Reagan that over the long run he could not possibly maintain. He is sure to disappoint and when he does, someone will say the honeymoon is over, but in this case honeymoon will be the wrong word. Washington couldn't wait for the wedding.