KENNY O'DONNELL, his most faithful lieutenant, used the line from an Irish ballad for his memoir of the adored leader: "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye."

In the chagrin and consternation, the shock and disappointment attendant on the news that Jack Kennedy, the first lord of Camelot -- and a generation's model for civility -- bugged the Oval Office, his followers are rallying as best they can. They've known about it for nine years. And it's different from what Nixon did, they insist.

"He was recording criminal acts. Kennedy was recording events."

But faithful hearts sink all the same. Nixon's rationale for the nonstop, voice-activated recording system was that a history-minded president needed the tools of modern technology to write his own account of events. It was an explanation greeted with howls of mirth and scorn for a greedy, sneaky churl.

On July 17, 1973, the day after the world knew what a creepy thing Richard Nixon had done -- but what could you expect? -- Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., historian of the New Frontier, declared that it would have been "inconceivable" for Kennedy to have such an "incredible system."

Actually, Democrats were just getting up off their feet from another blow delivered from the grave. They found out not three weeks ago that another idol, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had engaged in the practice of secretly recording Oval Office exchanges.

Schlesinger promptly came forward to explain how different Roosevelt's bugging was from Nixon's. It was done "to protect FDR from being misquoted during the 1940 campaign."

The Kennedy eavesdropping is not so easily dealt with. It went on for 16 months, and 600 White House meetings and telephone conversations are in the Kennedy Library.

If it wasn't nice for Nixon, it wasn't nice for Kennedy.

You can imagine the glee in Saddle River, N.J., the country seat of our only resigned ex- president. It was probably a day for champagne.

At last, vindication for the famous but fragile Watergate alibi: "Everybody does it."

Some of his less rational loyalists think that Nixon was driven out of the Oval Office because he bugged it. That is, of course, not so. He had to quit because the tapes contained evidence of felonious activity, not because he made them -- or even because he erased them.

He was punished for it. He handed his enemies a surgical instrument for probing the ugliness at the White House.

A tincture of irony here. The name of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox appears in the log of the Kennedy tapes for Aug. 22, 1963. The conversation is identified as centering on the tidelands issue and Louisiana. Cox was solicitor general at the time. He had no comments about the new tapes. Richard Nixon always railed that Cox was a Kennedy partisan.

Kennedy people protest that it really is different, that you have go beyond the fact of taping and see what transpired.

"Nixon gave taping a bad name," said a Democrat lamely.

It so happens that Kennedy's eavesdropping habits were worse than Nixon's. The Nixon tapes rolled indiscriminately, and his defenders used to say that he might have forgotten about them. At the sound of his voice, the reel began. Kennedy had to make a conscious decision every time his telephone rang. If he wanted a record, he turned on a switch which flashed a red light on the desk of his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln.

We will hear more in days to come about how the system worked. One curious item has turned up. It is a conversation with Stanley Tretick, a Look photographer whom the president liked. Tretick says he never called the president. He was trying to reach a friend, Priscilla Wear, who was called "Fiddle" and worked with Evelyn Lincoln.

"I don't know how it happened," said Tretick after he had seen the paper. "I thought JFK was terrific. Of course, he liked to hear the gossip. It doesn't feel good."

"I would love," said an eminent Democrat, who greatly admired Kennedy and did not wish to be identified, "to find another way of looking at it when he did it, but I can't. Taping someone who doesn't know his words are being taken down is unfair, inequitable and in very bad taste."

None of this will, probably, change the worshippers, who feel that he was the most attractive and romantic president we ever had. They are the people who feel that the Kennedys are intrinsically different, and that in the case of Jack, his brains, charm and wit redeemed everything he did. They prefer to think of him as a saint, or at least a knightly figure -- an attitude that survived the daunting revelations about his romance, during the White House years, with a gangster's moll.

We can hope that the keepers of the Kennedy flame will rush the tapes into print. It could be that they will have some redeeming social value, unlike those of the Watergate era.