It is a certifiable fact that in his time Marvin Mandel was one of Maryland's more honest governors. After years of scrutiny by the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. attorney's office, he was convicted of the Maryland equivalent of petty theft -- a favor here, a bribe there and something about a racetrack. Previous Maryland governors (may they rest in peace) did better than that on slow weekends.

Maybe this explains why Mandel was accorded something of a hero's welcome when he returned to the state. Reporters jammed his plane, he was given VIP treatment while changing planes in Atlanta and, when he landed, the state police were at the airport to control the crowds and give a more or less official atmosphere to the event.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Mandel had come back from a one-man kayak trip around the world and not from the slammer. He was asked if he has any political plans. He was asked if he would like to run for governor some day. Did he, maybe, have in mind a race for the Baltimore city hall, elevating his political ally, Mayor William Donald Schaefer to the governor's office in Annapolis. (Schaefer, in fact, offered Mandel a city job.

Neglected in all this is the fact that Mandel went to jail for being corrupt. He committed a crime. He abused his office. He took money and gifts in exchange for which he did some favors. Not even the most partisan Mandel supporter could read the trial transcript and not conclude that something was awfully wrong in the State of Maryland. A very small group of men ran the state. They traded in such matters as racetracks, were less than honest with either the legislature or the people and treated Maryland as their own business. They were out to make a profit.

Mandel and his codefendants, after all, were indicted and convicted. They even had the advantage of a mistrial, thereby getting a peek at the government's strategy. They had the best lawyers money could buy and these same lawyers took their case the entire appeals route. There is, in fact, no one but Mandel and the defendants who sat through the trial and came away thinking that innocent men were being sent to jail.

In a way, Mandel has purged himself. Jail can do that -- especially in Washington. Former Watergate figures are back in business. Gordon Liddy, a man with what has to be a terrific sense of humor, gets seated up front in Washington restaurants. Bobby Baker went straight from the slammer to his favorite restaurant -- and got his old table back, not to mention a warm welcome. In some corners of the political community, as with the Mafia, jail is seen as an occupational hazard -- like splinters for carpenters. It's not supposed to say anything about your character. It just means you got caught.

In contrast, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew spend their lives in some sort of purgatory. They have neither been exonerated nor convicted. For them, the other shoe never drops and no one is sure how to respond to them. Nixon, for instance, is sometimes honored, sometimes scorned, and Agnew lives out his life a virtual hermit -- branded, like the adulteresses of old, with a mark everyone but he can see.

Not so Mandel. He comes back to a hero's reception. But he is no hero. He is a former felon and, while it would have made no sense to continue to keep him in jail, it makes no sense either to forget what got him there in the first place -- or why he spent more time in jail than any of the original group of defendants. He was, after all, the only one who was governor and the only who had the public trust.

It's nice that Mandel is back in Maryland. It's nice that he's reunited with his wife and that he has found a job. He's 61 years old, a nice man, an able and talented politician and, with a major exception, a good governor. In a sense, he was a victim of his political environment and it is a wonder, given the governors who preceded him and the political tradition that spawned him, that he was not more corrupt than he was.

But that is a strange way to judge politicians. Marvin Mandel should not be compared to the governors who went before him, but to the governor he could have been. It's nice that he's out of jail. But it would have been nicer still if he had not done the things that got him there.