TODAY'S FLIGHT OF THE imagination concerns the discovery, eons from now and maybe by people from outer space, of the $7.1 Gerald Ford museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. These visitors would be impressed by the building, but they would be puzzled to learn that Ford himself was a mediocre (although amiable) politician, whose brief presidency, besides being totally accidental, was totally undistinguished -- certainly not as distinguished as the building that memorializes it. This is a case of the box overshadowing the gift.

These visitors might think that all presidents are accorded museums, but then they would search in vain for a fancy presidential museum named for Abraham Lincoln, not to mention (and why would anyone?) the one for Chester A. Arthur. Or they might think that the museum matches the president's popularity. The Roosevelt museum at Hyde Park, though, would surely give them pause. Our longest serving, if not most popular, president is accorded a rather modest museum.

What these visitors would probably not guess is that an American president's museum is a direct reflection of nothing more than his ability to make friends with rich people while in office. This Gerald Ford was able to do and this is why he has such a swell museum in Grand Rapids. (The Ford library is in Ann Arbor.) This is also something Richard Nixon was able to do which is why his forthcoming library cum apologeum on the Duke University campus will be built-- and will be built, you can just bet, to the specifications of Richard Milhous Nixon.

The law, in its wisdom, makes this all possible. It provides that the government will staff and maintain a presidential library until, as the song goes, the end of time. In this way, presidents earn their libraries the way pharaohs earned their pyramids -- simply by reigning. Had this piece of legislation been on the books from George Washington's time, we would now have a network of 40 presidential libraries (two for Grover Cleveland), all of them built by private donations but all of them now staffed and maintained at the expense of the government. The country would now have the Calvin Coolidge library it has so sorely missed, not to mention museums to honor the likes of Millard Fillmore, Warren Harding, William McKinley and Rutherford B. Hayes -- all of whom are better known as high schools than as presidents.

The trouble with this law is not only that it helps underwrite what in some case will be palaces honoring mediocrity and mendacity, but it makes presidents captives of rich people. All a president needs for his pyramid is a couple of hours in the Oval Office and some rich friends. Richard Nixon, for instance, had to resign the presidency in disgrace and then accept a presidential pardon. No matter. His friends will get him a library-- and the taxpayers get to support it forever.

In Ford's case, his museum is largely a gift from major donors. He got $1 million from the Japanese government, $200,000 from Saudi Arabia and $100,000 from the late Shah of Iran. It is of course obvious that all three do (or did) business with the American government, as do such individual and corporate donors as John P. McGoff ($225,000) and Occidental Petroleum($50,000). The list of corporations and foundations and wealthy individuals who donated is extensive. This is no palace of the people.

Instead, it is a palace supported at public expense for the glory and memory of Jerry Ford. These museums serve little or no public purpose other than to glorify, in a rather indiscriminate fashion, the presidency. Scholars could avail themselves of a library, but they probably would be just as happy if it were an adjunct to a university library or the Library of Congress. A museum is something else again. It is sheer vanity.

Presidents more than most people have their vanity -- and in some sense they are entitled to it. They worry about their place in history -- about such matters as museums and libraries. For the public to underwrite this concern is silly. But if the government is willing to maintain presidential museums, it ought to be willing to build them, too. There is, after all, more at stake here than merely avoiding potential conflicts of interest. Someday, we might have a president with no rich friends. He, above all, would deserve a museum.