FROM ALGER HISS to Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, a progression of absolute denials of so-called "smear" charges, followed, in time, by evidence that the "smear" was in fact true, has drastically altered the way Americans react to such conflicts. Maybe there was a time when it was considered pretty conclusive proof of innocence for a public person to deny outright and completely that he had either committed the offense in question or any other -- ever -- in that category. But this kind of public innocense went out with a series of guilty findings affecting those who had been most unequivocal in their denials, so that now there is a real ambivalence on the part of many people hearing the classic charges and classic responses of one of these confrontations. Did he or didn't he do it?

The confrontation we have in mind, of course, is that of the president's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, and a variety of accusers who claim that on different occasions in the past couple of years Mr. Jordan used the illegal drug cocaine. One such episode is said to have taken place in a New York disco and another at a Beverly Hills party. Mr. Jordan has responded that he did not use cocaine on either occasion and in fact has never used the drug.

As the titillation, gossip, controversy and exploitation the affair has generated continue to swirl around the capital, it occurs to us that there is a fairly simple and sensible way of looking at the conflict, and it is this: If Mr. Jordan is lying -- if he has ever used cocaine in the 2 1/2 years he has served as an important White House aide -- then he is a man of such incomparable stupidity and, accordingly, of such utter disqualification to serve in the White House that he should get out -- now. But if Mr. Jordan is telling the truth and if he is in actuality the victim of reckless and/or malicious gossip, lies and smears, then he should, in fact must , stick it out and fight.

If the latter involves sustaining a prolonged and politically damaging legal action complete with special prosecutor and all the unfortunate resonances that entails, Mr. Jordan should do it anyway -- and that is the point. In terms of the public interest one of the worst possible resolutions of the dispute would be for an innocent Mr. Jordan to be pushed from office by a campaign of self-seeking and slander. In terms of degrading the society, it is at least as undesirable a result as the bath of cynicism that would ensue if he were demonstrated to have been lying and then got kicked out.

You will have noticed that this initial choice is strictly up to Mr. Jordan. He alone knows absolutely and definitely what happened. But if he stays and chooses to fight, then he must be granted at least the presumption of innocence less celebrated figures enjoy and perhaps a little bit more. That more would be a willingness on the part of his patrons and sponsors to go through the political anguish of a dragged out special prosecution and not to encourage him to get out for the "good" of the party or the president or anyone or anything else.

you don't have to love Hamilton Jordan or reach a judgment on the facts or even especially admire the way the relevant special-prosecutor provision of the law works to understand the large public stakes in his not getting hounded from office on a bum rap. Despite all the sanctimonious (and gleeful) moralizing about how Mr. Jordan "asked for" it by living in a certain fashion, etc., it cannot have escapted your attention that there are aspects of the accusation that seem to come right out of an Allen Drury novel about the squalors of Washington -- and the Beverly Hills and Manhattan sidelights aren't so pretty either. We restate the obvious: If Mr. Jordan did it, he should get out. If, as his defenders suggest, he is being used ruthlessly and maliciously by a variety of accusers bent on serving their own purposes or merely on indulging their own recklessness, then there is no higher White House obligation in the affair than to resist. This country cannot acquiesce in the destruction of the careers of people in public life by rumor, slander and lie. We have been there before -- let's not forget it.