WHEN THE TIME COMES for goodbyes in this town, I want to get the chance to say something to Hamilton Jordan. I want to say that it was a pleasure having him here and I hope he comes back, but I also want to tell him that I don't think he got treated fairly. I want to say I'm sorry.

Jordan has to be leaving Washington a bitter man, although he says otherwise. Not only did his guy lose, but he came out of his Washington experience no winner. If he is known for anything, it is not for being the president's close friend, his chief of staff and, at the end, the chairman of his campaign committee, but as the guy who spit Amaretto down some women's blouse.

Whether he did that or not (He marshaled the legal talents of the White House to say he didn't) is almost beside the point. What is more to the point is how a brash young man with no talent for manipulating the press can suffer for the trival things he does while, in contrast, an older man with a bundle of talent for press manipulation gets nothing but rave reviews for everything he does. I am speaking of Henry Kissinger.

Okay, there are differences. But the most striking difference is how one man came out of his Washington experience enriched both in purse and stature, while the other comes out diminished in both -- and in neither case are their popular reputations basd on anything more than image. Just to add insult to injury, it is Jordan who must now pay something like $150,000 in legal debts incurred by virtue of being both a one-time visitor to Studio 54 and the White House chief of staff. Had he stayed in Georgia, he would have at least stayed solvent.

Jordan is not alone. Others in the Carter White House are leaving official Washington either poorer than when they came in or poorer than they should be. A bunch of them -- Jordan, Gerald Rafshoon, Timothy Kraft, even the president himself (remember the "warehouse scandal?") -- have had to spend considerable time and money defending themselves against charges that could only have been brought against them because they were high federal officials.

Individually, noe of it matters very much. The eithics-in-government law is a good concept and press vigilance is a good idea and so is a healthy dose of cynicism -- the officials who get to play with helicopters on the weekends are just ordinary people, after all. But when all of it -- the press, the new laws and an atmosphere of unrelenting cynicism -- are taken together, it can amount to the equivelent of what in football is called piling on.

In Jordan's case, for instance, he was never accused of abusing his office. The most serious charge against him was that he snorted cocaine at Studio 54 -- not exactly an abuse of office and not exactly a serious crime, either. No matter. Because he was a high federal official, the government had no choice but to investigate and Jordan had no choice but to pony up for a lawyer. He has been exonerated, but it cost him dearly and it makes you wonder why the government could not have paid his legal expenses in as much as it was government service that made him vulnerable to the charge in the first place.

Hamilton Jordan may be the worst-case example. He served a president who did not perform well and by some accounts Jordan did not serve him well. His relations with Congress were not good, with the press not much better, and he helped run a political campaign that, after all, lost. There is no harsher judgment than that.

Butt what happened to Jordan has got to give others pause before they would enter high government service. He came in strutting and got knocked silly for his pretentions. He got investigated by the government and the press, his private life went public and anyone with anything mean to say about him had a choice of either going to the newspapers or to the special prosecutor. Either way, the man spent much of his time defending himself against charges that had nothing at all to do with his work. Little of it really mattered.

What does matter is the example he sets for others -- the warning that we can maul our public servants, sometimes on the most trivial of all grounds. Hamilton Jordan, after all, leaves Washington in debt to lawyers, bruised and battered and slightly soiled, but with few of us having a firm idea if he was good or bad at what he did. All we really know for sure is that he does not use cocaine. It cost both us and him a bundle to find out.