THERE IS in America a persistent belief that government be separate from politics. Government is thought to be a matter of management or administration, and it will be conducted best if politics does not influence the process too much.

The people who must obviously adhere to this heresy are businessmen. Politicians are inefficient, they say, businessmen ar efficient. "No one can be trusted to run the country if he has not met a payroll." We have recently been told that some of Ronald Reagan's advisers take an alarming view that governing the country is or ought to be "like running General Motors9"

Since the automobile industry is displaying a singular incapacity to meet payrolls, this belief is understandably being met with more ribald outrage than usual. But the idea would be just as foolish if every industry were a model of efficiency. Emmett John Hughes described the moment in Eisenhower's administration when some of its members began to suspect "the awful truth about businesslike methods: politics might not be like business."

At the end of that administration, a document prepared for the chairman of the Republican National Committee said: "The belief of businessmen that 'politics needs business methods' is one of the great challenges." But it is still difficult to uproot.

There is also what may be called the aesthetic prejudice against politics; the belief that it is an ugly game of wheeling and dealing, and that government should be conducted by loftier men who are "above politics."

There has never been the slightest evidence that such "philosopher kings" are capable of governing a country. Socrates would have been a disastrous president.

But the belief that government can be separated from politics is today fed from another quarter: from the proliferating number of academics who, with nothing else to do, set themselves up as students of government. I would even say that it is time that someone proposed the motion: "The influence of academics on the public life of this country has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished."

I recently met the academics at a four-and-a-half-hour seminar at one of those august institutions in Washington where government and politics are supposed to be studied in an atmosphere of exquisite if abstemious ease and detachment. It is in fact one of the more sensibly conducted of these institutions. It is clearly admirable that it should so generously support those who do not wish to earn their living for a year. They are merely expected to sing for their supper now and then.

The subject was "New Perspectives on Domestic Policy in the Nixon Administration" -- which some would regard as trying to make a silk purse out of a sows ear -- and of course the panel was dominated by a professor who is supposed to be studying the subject. Both in her initial paper and under subsequent questioning, she uttered not a single sentence which was intelligible to me.

One journalist in the audience said engagingly that, although he had been around the Nixon administration as a reporter, he could not remember it all happening the way she seemed to suggest. With a rather more barbarous savagery, I said that we had been listening to academic twaddle. A former Republican congressman of some distinction who gave me a ride home said that he understood my outburst because he had been in the House in the Nixon years, "and that's not how I remember it happening."

And all of this was not just by the way. The discussion of the Nixon administration was explicitly related to speculation about the likely nature of the Reagan administration.

This speculation about what does not yet exist prompted my remark that one of the professor's difficulties might be that she read The Washington Post -- a remark which, I hasten to add, was intended to make the modest suggestion that it is wrong to take the day-to-day reporting of as complicated, obscure and still incomplete an event as the formation of a new administration as an array of fully documented fact on which we are at once capable of forming a historical or even academic judgment.

For of all the influences brought into play during the transition to a new administration, the influence of academics is always now active. This is partly because so many of them are sitting by their telephones, their suitcases packed, waiting for the summons to go to Washington and have the chance of putting their theories into practice. But it is mainly because of the prevalent belief in the rest of us that they are guardians of some Truth.

We more and more regard academics as the high priests of a Mystery into which the rest of us cannot see; and this is all the more odd in a time in which the standards of academic excellence are dropping precipitously. I hold few people in higher regard than the genuine scholars, and they do not rush in with "new perspectives" on an administration hardly past -- and another still unborn.

Scholars are people of discipline, who sutdy their craft with humility and stay modestly in their own fields. Academics are something else. They are people of little discipline, who have scant respect for their craft and who do ont stay in their own fields. At times of a transition to a new administration, they do not keep to their studies, but peddle their wares on what are called "task forces."

If you hear someone called an "expert" these days, you will look and find an academic. Even politicians and political journalists, who are the only true experts in politics, can be heard quoting political scientists, sociologists and even psychohistorians as "authorities."

Only in primitive tribes did people surrender their judgment so abjectly to high priests and witch doctors. Most academic writing about politics -- but not that of the true historian, the true political philosopher or the true accomplished biographer -- is nothing more than mumbo jumbo.

The intellectual mind -- rightly -- seeks order. It may be Newton trying to bring order out of the chaos of the universe, or a great historian trying to bring order out of the chaos of historical fact. As someone once said, intellectuals "are not intellectual by virtue of their experience in life but by virtue of intellectual powers independent of if, powers of abstraction, analysis, dialectic, argumentation." They are distanced from life; they should be; and if they know they are, and we know they are, they are very precious. It is therefore all the more important to understand that there are severe limits to the kind of contribution which they can make to so chaotic a human activity as politics.

Their contribution, kept within those limits, can be valuable, even invaluable. If it strays from them, it is foolish and misleading. As one of the journalists at the seminar said, the description to which he had listened was "too tidy"; and he added the aside that, with all their talk of managing the government at the beginning of any administration which they form, the Republicans always want to "tidy things up."

The former congressman said to me, "It imposes too much order on what I remember as much more chaotic." And when we hear talk of "managing the government" at the beginning of an administration, we should realize that this betrays the influence not only of businessmen who want to run the country as they run General Motors, but also of acadmeics who want to run the country to prove their own textbooks.

The professor at the seminar had come up with one of those abstractions about politics which gape with their own emptiness. She called it "the corporate presidency." When at the dog end of the evening she was asked to define more precisely what she meant by the phrase, we received what a neighbor whispered to me was absolute nonsense, about the descent of the "corporate presidency" from ideas like "guild corporatism."

This is bilge. It clogs the mind. It even clogs the drain from one's mind, through which one gets rid of waste. At no point in the evening, during a discussion of government and so of politics, did noe professor use the words "power" dand "character"; which seems, to put it as politely as possible, to carry abstraction to an unnecessary level of refinement.

Politics and government are not refined. They are rather brutish exercises of power and character. Why I love politics, admire politicians and value democracy is that this brutish exercise of power and character is so contained and civilized by them. There is an immediate urgency for us all in the Periclean ideal that politics is the highest art of a civilized people.

Harold Macmillan once said to me: "You claw and clamber your way to the top and, when you get there, what do you find in your hand? A Dead Sea fruit." A great politician was telling more than a thousand textbooks about politics, and not least about the part of politics which is known as "government." Where is the power? The politician is on shifting sand from day to day. The support which, he had yesterday may have evaporated during the night. His greatness is that he finds it where no manager dreams of looking.

There was a considerable amount of sniggering about Jimmy Carter at the seminar. I could not help reflecting that, five years from now, there will no doubt be a seminar on "new perspectives" about his administration. But the much more serious reflection is that, insofar as he deserves the retribution he has suffered, it is precisely because he believed that government can be separated from politics. Jimmy Carter truly believed that he could "manage" government.

It does not really matter at all that much whether Ronald Reagan is a "conservative" or a "moderate" or a "liberal"; it matters a great deal whether he has an understanding that government can be conducted only by politicians. If he does not like politics -- if he cannot bear opening his hand to find only a Dead Sea fruit in it -- then he will fail to find firm ground -- among the shifting sand -- from which to govern us well.

There is the "vision" -- a word tossed to the professor by others than me -- a keen sense of politics. In her astonishing attempt to draw a paralel between Roosevelt and Nixon, that is where she was blind. Roosevelt had a vision of politics as an art, for which no apology is needed; Nixon despised his own very skills, and so himself and others.

The professor could not correct me, but I was corected by a politician, Bryce Harlow, the most distinguished politician of the Nixon years, took the microphone. I do not agree -- and I do not think that he was asking me to agree -- with his estimate of Nixon. Nixon was "expedient" in domestic policy, he said; he was "visionary" in foreign policy.

He was looking straight at me as he said: "nixon was so persuaded of the role of the United States in saving Bri. . . . " He did not finish the name of my country; he corrected himself, without a flinch, and went on, "in saving civilization." He had corrected himself on his feet and, in doing so, he abruptly corrected me at once. Only a politician as good as he has the sensitivity to do that.

Academics boringly defend their silly positions.