IT WAS A FORMER army officer who in 1978 I drove me up from Cairo to the Suez Canal. We went to Port Suez and to Ismailia and there he showed me the place where he had fought the Israelis. He walked over rubble still left from the war, pointed to houses pockmarked from rifle fire and recreated the angry little firefight in which he had escaped the encircling enemy. His comrades had died there, he said, but peace with Israel was a wonderful thing and Anwar Sadat, he added with a smile, was a wonderful man.

Later we went to a tavern to eat and drink and still later we drove to Sadat's summer home overlooking the canal. Not much could be seen from the road, but the former army officer described it to me in glowing terms -- terms nearly as glowing the ones he used for Sadat himself. By then, I suspected that my guide was telling me what I wanted to hear.

Oh, not about his heroics in the war and not about what Sadat's house looked like, but possibly about how he felt about Sadat himself. My guide's English was not good and my Arabic is nonexistent and we had nothing but a business relationship going between us. If he hated Sadat for allying Egypt with America would he have said so? If he disagreed with the man over making peace with Israel, would he have told a stranger? If he still hated the Israelis and thought of nothing but revenge, would he have told me?

The answer, of course, is no. I wanted to peer into his eyes and see if I could see the truth hidden somewhere in his brain, to look so closely at him that what he was thinking would become evident, but such a thing is not possible. So the generally accepted view back then was that Egypt would not fight Israel again. This is what my guide told me and this, more or less, is what Anwar Sadat told us.

But who really knows? The fact of the matter is that Egypt had a single face to us all and that was the gentle and sorrowful one of Anwar Sadat. His melancholy eyes, his inner poetry, his sweetness were, to me, quintessentially Egyptian, but he was just one man. We made our deals with this one man, but he was not Egypt and maybe not even representative of it. He was a single man, not a nation.

But Sadat could dazzle. His personality, his courage, his imagination, his ability to shed both provincialism and nationalism and see the big picture, awed us. His charisma attracted us and his ability to use American television -- to go over the heads of both the Israeli and American governments -- made him a celebrity here. He used the medium masterfully. He conducted his diplomacy on it. He outflanked Menechem Begin on American television, staring Barbara Walters in the eye and taking from Israel what up to then had been its moral monopoly. To Israel it might have mattered that this was the man who attacked on Yom Kippur eve. To the American television audience it seemed not to matter at all.

Through television, Sadat became Egypt. Egypt was Sadat. But this was just another television lie. It overlooked the fact that no one person is an entire country. And, more than that, no man is greater than history, bigger than the historical and social forces that move nations and regions. This is something we tend to forget. We forgot it with the shah in Iran and and we overlooked it with Sadat in Egypt and we have done the same thing in spades when it comes to the Saudi royal family. This hugging and embracing of men makes for good television but lousy foreign policy. When the men go, the countries remain and, as Sadat's death proves, the men can go all too easily. Maybe the good don't always die young, but they always die too soon.

What matters in the end is the country, not the man. What matters is what lay behind the smile of that former army officer who served as my guide. This is why it is folly for the United States to make alliances time after time with leaders, with individuals, pledge to them our eternal support as President Reagan has done with the Saudi royal house, and ignore the nature of the society and the forces that shape it. Sadat was a great man, a military man who had the courage to risk peace, but in the end he may have been no more important then the smile on my guide's face. Now we will find out what it means.