Alas, poor Linwood Holton. History has treated him fairly. Only in Virginia, where the myths of history tend to elevate everyone who rules in "Mr. Jefferson's Capitol" to the level of statesman, could a politician complain of a being treated fairly.

Linwood Holton, the first Republican governor of Virginia in this century, has grounds for complaint. His administration, perhaps more than any other, is treated fully -- and without any apparent bias -- in a new book that should be the definitive work on many of the state's chief executives.

That puts Holton, who was governor from 1970 to 1974 and is now a Washington lobbyist for the life insurance industry, in an unfortunately small elite in "The Governors of Virginia, 1860-1978," edited by Edward Younger and James Tice Moore (The University Press of Virginia, $17.95, 448 pp.). Most of Holton's fellow governors are viewed through rose-colored glasses in this anthology.

Never mind most Virginia governors' penchant for back-room dealing, their stern, repeated opposition to civil rights, public welfare, education and social issues, their efforts to limit the electoral process to a few and to weaken political parties, they were Governors of Virginia. And, as one of Gov. Mills E. Godwin's biographers once stated, in Virginia there is "No higher honor."

To be sure, the book makes early note of "the striking degree of continuity and homogeneity" among the 30 governors (i.e., all were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants and all were "well-to-do and the well-connected"). But most of the book's contributors ignore or downplay many of the controversies and methods used by the long-dominant Byrd Organization to place many of the governors in office.

Take the issue of race, perhaps the single largest issue to confront "the organization" and Virginia since the Civil War. Godwin, who championed the state's "massive resistance" to public school desegregation, almost comes off as an ally of Virginia's black citizens.

Recalling, but not quoting directly from, Godwin's segregationist speeches as a state senator, historian James L. Bugg Jr. attempts to explain Godwin's racial views: "Not a racist in the classic negrophobic mold, he did not urge deliberate defiance of the law, nor did he manifest hostility toward blacks as individuals or as a group; instead his actions were directed exclusively toward delaying and minimizing integration by legal means."

Translation: Godwin was a determined segregationist who helped prolong the state's fight over school integration. The only man who has been twice elected by the public to Virginia's highest office, Godwin is truly a major figure in Virginia politics. But his actions deserve more candor.

But then, the trouble with "The Governors of Virginia" is that the book is as inconsistent as the governors themselves. Thanks to the excellent research of J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a former University of Virginia law professor and newspaper editor, Holton's accomplishments (cleaning up the Potomac, for example) and failings (being disowned by his own party midway through his gubernatorial term) come alive. Critics are quoted, anecdotes recounted and the period a Holton aide called "Camelot on the James" becomes vivid and believable.

Unfortunately, Holton is the last of 30 governors the book chronicles, and until then, a reader should be prepared for meeting so many sincere, well-meaning men that he will find himself repeatedly checking the jacket to make certain this book is about Virginia.

Consider the chapter on Harry F. Byrd Sr., who along with Godwin ranks as one of the most important Virginia governors of this century. If Godwin, first as a Democrat (1966-1970) and then as a Republican (1974-1978), helped fix Virginia's contemporary conservative course, he was only staying the route Byrd had drawn.

As a U.S. senator, Byrd coined the expression "massive resistance" and helped direct its course. But he is described as a governor who "preferred to avoid the race issue and did not refer to race in public addresses."

Admittedly, the school integration crisis came long after Byrd's tenure as governor (1926-1930), but his later role in fighting integration is so well known and so in conflict with his pronouncements as governor as to call them into question.

And that is true of many governors whose terms are recounted in the book. You only have to read the chapter titles to get the drift of the various contributors. Godwin is "A Man for All Seasons," wartime Gov. Colgate W. Darden Jr. (1942-1946) is "The Noblest Roman of Them All," and segregationist Gov. Thomas B. Stanley (1954-1958) is the "Reluctant Resister."

The worst shortcoming, however, may have been to dismiss the frequently outrageous, racist comments of hard-drinking, poker-playing William M. Tuck (1946-1950) as "The Organization's Rustic Rara Avis" or "the closest thing to a folk hero ever to sit in the Governor's Mansion."

After all, it was Tuck who as a congressman helped fan resistance to integration in Southside Virginia by denouncing the Supreme Court as "nine reprehensible individuals gasconading in judicial ermine." When others urged token compliance, Tuck would have none of it: "On this subject I am not a 'gradualist,' I am a 'neverist.' "

There are some gems in this book. New Dealer James Hubert Price (1938-1942) showed that a challenge could be mounted to the Byrd Organization from within, but Price ended up, as did most Byrd opponents, paying mightly for his disloyalty.

For all its shortcomings, however, "The Governors" is certain to become a major reference book. Readers should bring to it a degree of skepticism, if for no other reason than that Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. and a number of other prominent conservatives helped finance the book.

In its own way "The Governors" does raise one large, unanswered question: If the governors of Virginia were so powerful and the men who filled the office so sincere, why has Virginia failed so often to address its most pressing social issues and problems?