THE DIPLOMATIC BEAT ranks first and the energy, regulatory and economic beats rank eighth, 10th and 11th in a poll of Washington reporters published in a new book by Stephen Hess. Thus it may be that America's industrial decline will someday be explained, in some part at least, by the fact that energy, regulatory and economic problems are reported mostly by the journalists who were left over after the preferred assignments were handed out. j

Why does the diplomatic beat rank highest? Hess thinks the answer is that it combines travel with visibility. I agree. Reporters, like everyone else, love to take trips. They also love to have folks back home see them on television.

The latter drive, in fact, is what I have come to regard as the dominant motive of most Washingtonians I know. It is not money. It is not sex. It is "if they could see me now!"

Maybe it's dad or mom or your older brother or sister, maybe it's the snobs who snubbed you in high school. But whoever "they" are, most of the people I know are trying to show "them" something.

How else can we explain, for instance, why reporters bear the boredom of hanging around the White House press room or listening to State Department briefings. How, above all, can they endure a Washington cocktail party, where most of what is said to you is so stupefying it makes Hodding Carter seem like a stand-up comedian? The explanation must be that Washingtonians want to be there, want to be part of the picture, want to have an impressive story to tell whoever their "they" is.

The wise Washington lobbyist understands all this and, like a skilled director, creates scenes that he knows the lobbyee -- whether a reporter, a newly arrived congressman or an assistant secretary just appointed by Reagan -- wants to be part of. It can be a gathering of statesmen, celebrities or high society, or a mixture of the three. It doesn't matter what the purpose of the gathering is, or even if there is a purpose. All that matters is that "they" will be impressed.

If you are one of those who complain about the impenetrability of the prose employed by public officials, if you feel they never call a spade a spade, let me direct your attention to a lecture on judicial ethics Chief Justice Richard Neely of the West Virginia Supreme Court recently gave to a gathering of magistrates:

"You certainly shouldn't own a whorehouse," Chief Justice Neely advised. "It's not good for a judge to be in the whorehouse business. Don't go out and screw 13-year old girls. Lady magistrates, I don't know if there's any equivalent for you, but certainly do not help somebody screw 13-year-old girls. e

"When it actually comes down to election time and the other guy's out there doing dirty, I'm going to kick you out if you're the first guy to say, 'He's queer. He steals sheep.' On the other hand, if somebody else starts it and its's unjust, then get in there and fight like hell. At a certain point, it gets down to survival. If you're a good magistrate, I want to see you survive, so do whatever it takes to survive. But don't start it [the fight], let the other man start it."

As Chief Justice Neely made clear, it can be somewhat embarrassing for a public official to be caught doing something he is not supposed to do. The Chicago Sun Times recently caught David Stockman doing exactly that. A 13-year-old-girl, I hasten to add, was not involved. But it seems that shortly before he became director of OMB, while he was still a congressman, Stockman had attempted to intervene with the Department of Energy on behalf of Agri Power Inc., a company seeking subsidies for the development of its fuel-alcohol distillery in Addison, Mich. Stockman of course has been well known for his opposition to government subsidies for private business, especially subsidies for synthetic fuels (of which fuel alcohol is one). Apparently his opposition did not extend to subsidies for business in Addison, which just happens to be located in his former congressional district.

Remember that federal official in Kansas City who was found guilty of running a private business on government time, but had his conviction overturned and got his job back because the judge said he had "lacked criminal intent" when he defrauded the government? Here is an update on the story. It seems that the official was making $46,000 a year from the government while he was also operating his own business. And there was an interesting comment on the extent of his activities to earn that salary from the chief lawyer for the Department of Health and Human Services (formerly HEW) in Kansas City. In a letter to the Department of Justice, the lawyer recommended that the case be dismissed, because if it came to trial, the official's defense -- that he and his secretary had nothing to do for long periods of time at HEW and that working on private business was better than not working at all -- would be, according to the lawyer, "a persuasive one."

Government reports seldom make for lively reading. And one would not expect a 2,500 pager from the Special Commission Concerning State and County Buildings of Massachusetts to be an exception to the rule. But it is -- and there isn't a consenting minor in it.

One section tells how three recent Massachusetts governors generated campaign contributions. Likely contributors -- people doing business with the state, such as contractors and lawyers -- were invited to meet with the governor. "The innocent flush with pride at receiving the invitation," the report says. "The practiced reach for their pocket-books."

"The appointment is made at a suite of three rooms in a Boston hotel. The outer room is a large waiting room, where one discovers one's peers and fellow practitioners in uncomfortable numbers. In the second room sits the governor, usually making up time over soup and a sandwich. The audience lasts no longer than two or three minutes.

"In the third room is the fundraiser, who, with records at hand, reminds the individual of work done in the past, of profits received on state work, and suggests the time has come to help the governor and the party by a maximum contribution. In this particular scenario, one cannot even apologize for a shortage of money -- a cash-flow problem, as businessmen put it -- because there is also in the room a stack of 60-or 90-day bank loan forms, ready for signature if things are tight or if you have forgotten your checkbook."

The appendix of a new survivalist book, "Life After Doomsday" by Bruce D. Clayton, contains advice on what areas of the country not to live in. That advice takes the form of a comprehensive list of strategic military targets the Soviet Union would attack with nuclear bombs during a war. The list is highly detailed. It explains the locations and purpose of each military installation, and gives everything but missile targeting coordinates and a schedule of when radar screens are down for maintenance.

How did Clayton compile this material? He didn't. He found it in an unclassified report of the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, and in a public hearing record of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Washington seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble to make the Russian spy's task an easier one: Not only does the list reveal our military targets, it ranks them in order of significance, as primary, secondary or tertiary.