When he was hot, he was very hot. He got all the press he wanted, reams of stories reporting almost uncritically everything he said. He dashed around New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, dropping interviews like ladies used to drop handkerchiefs. You might think this is about John Z. De Lorean. It's not. It's about the press.

Come with me into what the movies call the "morgue" but which journalists now call the library. There you will find story after story attesting to the genius of De Lorean. He said he quit General Motors. The press wrote he quit. He said he would make the car of the future. The press said he would make the car of the future.

Jack Anderson cited De Lorean as "one of the big brains of the automobile industry." The Wall Street Journal called De Lorean "a romantic of sorts" and said -- with nary of hint of his forthcoming industrial troubles -- that his car was on the way. The Washington Post was no less a De Lorean fan. It headlined one story "De Lorean Ready to Dazzle Detroit," writing: "There are good reasons for De Lorean's likely success."

"The press" is an amorphous term employed by Agnew-esque characters who love conspiracies. There were some writers, in fact, who did warn that with De Lorean things were not quite what they seemed. But it is fair to say that the general reader was ill prepared for the spate of stories that followed De Lorean's arrest.

In some newspapers and magazines, for instance, De Lorean has been virtually pronounced guilty of the drug charges against him. We have been told that the supercar is a superlemon, that the door falls off and the thing has a tendency to stop dead in its tracks. We were told also that De Lorean did not quit GM. Maybe he was fired. And we are informed that in addition to trailing interviews wherever he went, De Lorean also left behind some lawsuits. Why didn't we know this before he was arrested?

Let us first tip our hat to De Lorean himself. He was not only one super salesman, but also a keen student of the press. He gave it -- and the American public -- exactly what it's always loved: the legendary maverick who thumbs his nose at the establishment. But that's not all. De Lorean also provided a foil to be used against the auto Big Three. He just had to be right if only because some people so much wanted the Big Three to be wrong.

This is the Alger Hiss syndrome. Hiss was the State Department official who was accused by Richard Nixon and others of perjury. To some, the very fact that Nixon was the accuser meant that Hiss had to be innocent, and that view, the Hiss conviction notwithstanding, prevails in some circles to this day. It is a variation of the logic that holds that your enemy's enemy is your friend.

It was the same with De Lorean. He had the right enemy -- Detroit. In the popular imagination, Detroit was nothing but a collection of dimwits whose devotion to planned obsolescence gave foreign manufacturers their current share of the auto market. De Lorean was someone from "the inside" who confirmed our worst suspicions. The press liked what he said so much, it never bothered to look real hard at the man who was saying it. This was no conspiracy, just a natural tendency and there, for the lack of a column topic on a given day, would have gone I.

As for the auto makers, they did their part. With the public relations skill of the Argentine junta, GM, for one, just buttoned up when it came to De Lorean. To this day, it remains unclear if De Lorean was fired by GM or quit.

The fact remains, though, that it was the press acting like a bobby-soxer at De Lorean's stage door that helped him to get as far as he did. After all, the people who either bought his car or invested in his businesses were buying into nothing more than image. They had been told that the man was a genius and a maverick, but what they had not been told was that he also had a reputation among some people as a scoundrel.

Now De Lorean is charged with attempting to buy $24 million in cocaine. Maybe he's innocent. But guilty or innocent, he remains the man he always was -- whatever that was. Only his press coverage has changed. graphics /photo: John De Lorean