HE BOOK REVIEWERS have been criticizing Jimmy Carter's memoirs, "Keeping Faith," as a dull and bloodless book, but the problem is more serious than that. The problem is that Jimmy Carter has not kept faith.

From the president who promised that he would never tell a lie, this is a sad memorial. Finishing the book, a charitable reader might conclude that Carter never really understood what was going on around him, that he failed to grasp the political dynamics of his own presidency or to appreciate how his own behavior influenced others. If he did understand what was really going on around him and still wrote this book, then writing it was a contemptuous act.

Many of Carter's former aides are saddened by the book, though several offer explanations for it. Carter wrote it by himself and hurriedly, without much staff assistance, they say. He really wanted to write a book about the Camp David peace talks, they say. Every president who writes memoirs distorts history, they say.

Of course it's true that modern presidential memoir has not been characterized by total candor. Presidents understandably cast themselves in a favorable light. One way to do that is by omitting embarrassments, and Carter omits many of them.

For example, the name of Theodore Sorensen does not appear in "Keeping Faith." But it was Carter's decision -- under pressure from the Senate -- to withdraw Sorensen's nomination as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the early days of his presidency that first established him a weak figure that the Congress could push around. It wouldn't be surprising if Carter had forgotten that unhappy episode.

Other omissions in the book seem more studied. Discussing his first meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, Carter recalls his discovery that, in real terms, defense spending fell steadily under Presidents Nixon and Ford. "The public and Congress would have to be convinced that we needed to strengthen our defenses," Carter writes. "I would have to supply this persuasion. . ." He fails to mention that he had just completed a two-year campaign for the presidency in which he promised consistently to cut, not increase, defense spending.

Discussing the 1980 economic crisis that forced him into numerous embarrassing revisions of his budget (another fact he skips over), the former president writes that his package of emergency measures announced in March 1980 led to reduced consumer spending. "Although only slight restraints were imposed on credit-card use, many card holders began to believe that it was almost unpatriotic to buy items on credit," Carter writes. The passage is so vague that only a few will recall that he is talking about the unprecedented (and unsuccessful) credit controls his administration pressured the Federal Reserve into adopting that month. The book contains no other reference to credit controls.

Omissions regarding domestic policy and events are too numerous to try to list them all here. The book contains no serious analysis of what happened to America and its economy during the Carter presidency. Carter does not write about his switch from expansionary, stimulative policies of his first two years to much more restrictive policies in his last two. He does not mention the dollar crises that helped force that change. He writes virtually nothing about the workings of his Cabinet, and offers no real explanation of why he fired three of its members, or what their departure meant for his administration.

Carter makes no claim that his book is a definitive history; he has every right to select what he wants to write about. His preference was to write about foreign policy. (The book's best, most authoritative section is about the Camp David peace talks, Carter's finest hour.) But more serious problems arise when he writes incorrectly about familiar events.

Carter's account of the Bert Lance affair is a good example. He blames Lance's troubles entirely on a bloodthirsty press corps: "To uncover a new story, true or not, was considered by some to be a notable achievement, and denials or even proof of falseness were oftens smothered in an additional rash of stories coming at the same time."

According to Carter, Lance was just "a good country banker" whose down-home methods were a little different from "big city bankers," but whose honesty was beyond question. Carter contends that Lance got into trouble only because his promise to sell all his stock in several Georgia banks had resulted in the value of that stock falling. If Lance sold his stock as promised, this would cause "an immediate hardship on the banks and on the other shareholders," Carter writes.

In fact, Lance had borrowed heavily (and, according to the comptroller of the currency, under questionable circumstances) to buy that bank stock. Its value had declined (though there was no evidence that this was related to Lance's promise to sell), and if Lance kept his promise, he couldn't raise enough by selling the stock to repay the money he had borrowed to buy it. Lance asked the Senate committee that confirmed him to let him postpone the sale, a request that prompted the Senate to ask the comptroller to investigate Lance. That is what triggered the news stories.

According to Carter's book, the comptroller gave Lance "an official clean bill of health." But the comptroller himself testified publicly to the Senate that he did no such thing. "That certainly wasn't our assertion," the comptroller said on Sept. 8, 1977, when asked if his office had exonerated Lance. ("Bert, I'm proud of you," Carter had said publicly after release of the comptroller's report that decidedly did not exonerate Lance. It was an early warning, a former Carter associate said recently, that the White House staff was dangerously weak.)

It turned out that Lance had been in serious trouble with federal bank regulators. The bank he ran gave large, improper overdrafts to Lance's own unsuccessful campaign for governor of Georgia; he gave huge overdrafts to members of his and his wife's family, among other problems.

Later government reports showed that Lance or his friends had tried to cover up his earlier troubles with bank examiners, and that he had misused a plane belonging to his bank for private business such as trips to football games. (Writes Carter: "Bert . . . pointed out that it had been the policy of the bank to use the airplane for this purpose long before he went to work there. . .")

Carter acknowledges that the Senate Majority Leader, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), told him Lance would have to resign -- not, presumably, because he was innocent of all accusations against him -- and Carter accepted that verdict. But Carter makes no distinction between criminal wrongdoing and simple impropriety, and he never gives any indication that he thought Lance had done something wrong. Only the newspapers erred.

Carter's version of the evolution of his initial proposals for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) is similarly at variance with the known record.

It was in February and March of 1977 that the new Carter administration formulated those proposals. In his book Carter does not mention the fact that they were strongly influenced by Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D- Wash.), a hardliner and skeptic about the earlier SALT agreements. Carter sought Jackson's counsel on SALT, and the senator had sent him a detailed memo. The first Carter plan, calling for deep cuts in existing Soviet weapons systems, bore a close resemblance to some of Jackson's suggestions. Carter briefed Jackson on his plans before making them public; the senator then praised the Carter initiative in a press release.

In a departure from past practice -- which was to conduct all SALT negotiations in secret with the secretive Russians -- Carter announced the outline of his plans to a press conference just before Secretary of State Cyrus Vance flew to Moscow to present them to the Soviets. This press conference caused a furor in Moscow -- the Soviet leaders interpreted it as an affront. Carter doesn't mention the press conference in the book.

Because he skips over it, he also skips over the slip he made during that press conference. "If we're disappointed (by the Soviet response to his new initiative) -- which is a possibility -- then we'll try to modify our stance," Carter said. This was an open invitation to the Russians to reject proposals they didn't like anyhow.

Carter writes: "When Cy Vance delivered our suggestions to the Soviet leaders, their response was almost immediate, and quite negative. . . It was obvious they wanted to move slowly and in small increments."

In fact the Vance mission was a diplomatic fiasco. The Soviets brutally rejected the Carter plan, forcing the administration to retreat to a position close to Gerald Ford's. This retreat confirmed the view of many Senate hardliners that Carter was weak in his dealings with the Soviets, a view that plagued the Carter presidency.

None of this appears in "Keeping Faith." But the book does contain one reference to Sen. Jackson's attitude toward SALT: "There was no possibility of support from Scoop Jackson for any treaty which the Soviets were likely to sign," Carter says of the man who had so strongly influenced and supported his own first proposals for a SALT treaty.

Similarly, Carter's account of the on-again, off-again "neutron bomb" which he decided not to build just after his deputy secretary of state, Warren Christopher, had persuaded the Germans to approve the idea is far removed from the actual course of events. (That Christopher mission isn't mentioned.) In his book Carter describes the enhanced radiation neutron weapons as having "a major avantage over the exiting tactical nuclear weapons it would replace," which he spelled out in detail. But later he describes his decision not to build the weapons as "logical on its own merits."

"Keeping Faith" also contains numerous smaller errors, some that raise questions about Carter's perceptions, some that simply suggest sloppiness. For example:

* Describing events surrounding the "discovery" of a Soviet army brigade in Cuba, an event that undermined the SALT II treaty in the Senate, Carter writes that U.S. intelligence reported the finding during the Labor Day weekend of 1979; the report really came at least six weeks earlier. He says Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) learned of the discovery from a secret intelligence digest; in fact he learned about it in a phone call from a senior State Department official. Carter attributes publicity about the brigade that followed Church's announcement of its existence partly to the fact that "Church was a favorite of the Washington press," an assertion that will surprise ex-Sen. Church.

* Carter refers to Ambler Moss as his ambassador in Panama during the months before the Senate voted on the Panama Canal treaties. In fact Moss didn't become ambassador until after those treaties had been approved by the Senate.

* Carter describes the U.S.-Soviet hot line as a telephone connection, suggesting that he never looked into the communications facilities available to him in an emergency. In fact the hot line is a telex connection.

* Carter asserts that "the Cubans aided Katangan rebels in an invasion of Zaire" in 1977, but offers no evidence to support this contention. In office the Carter administration backed away from this charge.

Former associates say many of these errors can probably be explained by the haste with which Carter wrote his book. When the manuscript was complete he gave it to a few of his closest aides, asking them to read it, make comments and returnnit to him within 48 hours.

If "Keeping Faith" is an unreliable source of historical information, it does provide a wealth of revelation about Jimmy Carter.

According to men and women who worked with the former presidecnt, the pages of "Keeping Faith" ring with the sound of Carter's own voice. Some of them remark with bitterness that only Carter himself could have written a book in which he alone was responsible for most of the administration's accomplishments -- and few of its failures. References to his key assistants are spare at best, and they usually appear as presidential messengers. Rarely are aides given any credit for substantive achievements.

Carter reveals few of his emotions in the book, but occasionally they come flying off the page. For example: "Before we arrived in Washington, some of the society-page writers were deploring the prospective dearth of social grace in the White House and predicting four years of nothing but hillbilly music, and ignorant Bible-toting Southerners trying to reimpose Prohibition in the capital city. The local cartoonists had a field day characterizing us as barefoot country hicks with straw sticking out of our ears, clad in overalls, and unfamiliar with the proper use of indoor plumbing . . ."

At another point Carter reflects on his crusade to put an end to wasteful water projects that Congress liked to pass as pork for the home folks. These were a reasonable target for budget-cutting zeal, but Carter's impolitic insistence that they be wiped out poisoned his relations with the barons of Congress. But Carter doesn't concede that possibility.

"I made some mistakes in dealing with Congress," he writes, "and the one that I still regret is weakening and compromising that first year on some of these worthless dam projects."

Some of the revelations in the book are troubling. For example, Carter makes it clear that Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, utterly charmed Carter, and maneuvered him into giving the appearance of tacitly approving the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, an event the United States had no interest in promoting, as Carter writes.

From Carter's account it would appear that Deng came to Washington hoping to win if not support, at least American acceptance for his plan to punish his Vietnamese neighbors. When he described the plan to Carter, the president told him this was a bad idea, but obviously not in terms that the Chinese leader found persuasive.

Almost immediately after Deng returned home the attack was launched, probably convincing the Vietnamese and their Soviet allies that this was the result of Sino-American collusion. If this was the perception in Moscow, it could help explain subsequent hostile Soviet behavior, even including the brutal invasion of Afghanistan that dashed Carter's hopes for a SALT treaty and better relations with the Russians.

Carter's description of his summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev also raises disturbing questions. He writes credulously of a comment Brezhnev made to him in their first private conversation: "If we do not succeed (in negotiating a SALT treaty), God will not forgive us." Carter seems to believe that the leader of the atheist Soviet state may have really been serious. He ignores the more likely explanation that the Soviets were trying crudely to exploit Carter's religious belief.

On the "Today" show recently, Carter was asked why Ronald Reagan is "viewed as a good 'leader,' and President Carter was not." Carter responded with revealing candor. "I don't know," he said.

"Keeping Faith" reveals that Carter has little appreciation for the symbolic side of politics that Ronald Reagan exploits so well. The book also reveals that Carter had a much better grasp of complex issues than Reagan seems to have; that he worked harder as president than Reagan seems to work; and that he saw many of the world's problems more clearly than Reagan seems to see them. But none of that substitutes for a strong sense of how to lead, which Carter never had.

Someday, it's safe to predict, revisionists will try to revive Carter's reputation, but future historians will have a hard time working this memoir into a sympathetic reinterpretation of the Carter presidency. It is such an odd book that many of Carter's close associates from his White House years are baffled by it. Some of them have decided that -- in the words of one -- there is only one way to interpret the book's omissions, errors and rationalizations: "He must believe that he still has a future in public life."