Two columns for the price of one today: the first on a problem that is all too prevalent, the second on two politicians embodying a quality that is all too rare.

The too-common problem is hardship in this time of economic recession. We all know it surrounds us, afflicts our communities and our fellow- citizens. But how many of us and how severely?

The answer to those questions is not a matter of pedantry but an essential prerequisite for framing intelligent national policy to target scarce dollars for maximum results.

Juanita Kreps, secretary of commerce in the Carter administration, and seven other distinguished economists have come out with a report showing that the methods the federal government now uses to measure economic hardship are "seriously deficient" for the job.

Those measures--principally the unemployment and poverty statistics--can seriously distort and disguise the scope and nature of the problem, exaggerating it at times and obscuring it at others.

For example, Kreps and her colleagues calculate that, in 1979, "more than half of those who were unemployed at some time . . . lived in households with total annual incomes in excess of $15,000." On the other hand, in 1981, "more than five million workers, who were never officially unemployed, lived in poverty."

Since the need to alleviate poverty is immediate, while the programs to reduce unemployment may well have to be long-term in scope, it is imperative to be able to measure these problems as precisely as possible--and to distinguish them from each other.

The statistics now available, according to Kreps and her colleagues, suggest that low wages and limited hours of employment caused more hardship, at least in 1979, than did unemployment.

But the need, they point out, is for data that is more current and geographically precise. "Basic hardship counts can now be calculated for the nation, for multi-state regions, and for the 10 most populous states," they point out, but not for the other 40 states and not for local labor markets.

The money it would take to improve and refine that data would be money well spent.

As for the quality that is too rare in politics, the one I'm thinking about is the combination of gentleness in personal dealings and absolute fearlessness in policy battles. The national supply of that quality was severely diminished by the deaths, just a few days apart, of Rep. Benjamin S. Rosenthal (D-N.Y.) and former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall (R), both victims of cancer.

Both of them were fierce fighters for the causes they believed in: consumerism in Rosenthal's case, environmentalism in McCall's. Both were instinctive civil libertarians, sensitive to any hint of bigotry or bullying. Their views of the outer world could not have been more opposite. McCall was a hawk from beginning to end of the Vietnam War, while Rosenthal was an early and passionate critic of the war.

What really made them stand out was their readiness to put aside any thought of political prudence and tackle the tough guys of their own parties when those antagonists were at the height of their power. Rosenthal did it with Lyndon Johnson, McCall with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

But off the stump, these were two of the gentlest gentlemen in politics. They had no pomp in their makeup. Both of them could walk away from a fight and come up laughing. They invited teasing, and could outdo anyone in parodying the way they sounded when they were in full flight of rhetorical battle.

They were, in their individual and inventive ways, obstreperous, but deliberately so, calculatingly, cunningly so. They devoted serious thought to devising the best techniques for needling their opponents or upsetting a gathering consensus. And because they loved that arena of political combat so well, they accomplished much more--and left more people mourning them--than those who are more decorous and detached.

Neither Ben Rosenthal nor Tom McCall ever forgot that the battling they so enjoyed depends, ultimately, on tolerance of dissent. More than most people in politics, they showed how to love their adversaries, for without their adversaries, there would be no one to sustain the quarrels they so dearly loved.

The sound of their voices raised in battle will be missed. And so will their laughter.