OKAY, TAKE ME IN, book me, don't bother to read me my rights. I am guilty as charged. It's a clear case of dereliction of duty.

I don't know what the rap is for skipping a dinner where three ex-presidents are speaking in order to watch the finale of "M*A*S*H." Maybe you have to do time in Plains in July, or six months at hard labor on Richard Nixon's presidential papers for another installment of his memoirs. Maybe it's caddying for Gerald Ford at the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Whatever the damage, I will pay it.

If I get to make a speech in the dock, I'll say, for openers, that it will not be "a historic first" -- although I do not expect this to keep Nixon from calling it that. Our three former presidents have appeared together in public at the funeral of Anwar Sadat.

Even if they hadn't, I will confess that I would have gone ahead with my plans for a counter-dinner. Twelve of us "M*A*S*H"- heads will eat meatloaf and potatoes, as they do so often in the mess tent -- and snow peas in honor of Korea. Then we will wallow in 21/2 hours in Ouijongbu in the reviving company of our heroes, who are more real to us than the three survivors of "the splendid misery" of the presidency.

Two-thirds of the trio who will be unfolding their napkins three blocks away may not take umbrage -- Carter and Ford are "M*A*S*H" fans, too -- when I say that our group anticipates more wit from Hawkeye, more wisdom from Col. Potter and more humanity from B.J. Honeycutt than may be dispensed from the head table at the Sheraton- Washington. Nixon probably will; he usually does.

Frankly, it is the auspices of the dinner that I find most liberating. It is in honor of Adm. Hyman Rickover, who exemplifies why a guilt-free evening can be spent out of the presence of people out of office.

The admiral, you remember, told us, when it was too late to do any of us any good, that he was "not proud" of the part he played in nuclear-powered ships. He would now, when he can no longer do it, "sink them all." Thanks a lot, admiral.

With all due respect, ex-Presidents Ford and Carter similarly demonstrate this propensity of public men to say sensible things once they are no longer in a position to put them into effect. Coming back from Sadat's funeral, they boldly informed us that to bring peace in the Middle East, it is necessary to deal with the PLO. Neither dared say it in the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan, who would have to face the music from Jewish voters, paid them no mind.

Alas, I don't have to go to dinner to find out what Richard Nixon thinks about anything. Television news executives have mistakenly assumed that I am on tiptoe for his opinions about everything, and regularly cut away from great events to bring me comments from the sage of Saddle River. Most recently, on the occasion of Walter Mondale's presidential declaration, he opined that Mondale would never make it because of his close ties to Carter. Maybe Carter will lean over the centerpiece to ask Nixon what he meant by it.

I shall not be there. I shall be in The Swamp, or the O.R., or at Rosie's Bar, or possibly in the supply room with Hawkeye and a new nurse. Wherever I am, I shall be happy in the unseen company of millions of other Americans, to whom I do not need to explain my choice. Sure, "M*A*S*H" is funny; yes, it is antiwar. But it is much more than that. At the 4077th, as distinct from Washington, people speak their minds and feelings, and make tremendous progress in understanding themselves and one another.

Hawkeye goes to surgery drunk. He leaves an operation midcourse. He commits the sacrilege of screaming at the adoring, wounded Radar. No one excuses him. They line up to tell him off, even gentle Father Mulcahy. Hawkeye knows he has been a jerk. He reconciles with Radar as an equal. He gives Radar his beer; he takes Radar's Nehi grape.

The romantic message of "M*A*S*H" is that people can accept help in the form of home truths about themselves, which, of course, in real life is not always the case. It is as much the constant, successful transactional analysis as the wisecracks that gives the show its therapeutic content. It goes on even when the Dr. Sidney Freeman -- Hawkeye calls him "the skull-jockey" -- is not in. Everyone does it. Hawkeye's back is killing him. Col Potter tells him he is crippled with anger at a doctor back home who is making hay while Hawkeye stews and fumes in The Swamp. Hawkeye straightens up.

People always grow and improve on "M*A*S*H." Maj. Houlihan is transformed from a banshee to a woman before our eyes. Toledo-crazed Klinger became responsible. "M*A*S*H" is telling us that it's too bad that the triumph of human decency doesn't occur more often outside a war zone.

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.