SINCLAIR LEWIS would have recognized Edwin Meese III.

There's more than a touch of "Main Street" in our attorney general-designate, and a bit of "Babbitt" as well. Meese doesn't fit in Washington's gallery of familiar types. He is a man from another culture.

He seems like a nice guy ("What's wrong with being affable?" he once asked). But his niceness has a brittle quality, perhaps because it is unaccompanied (at least outwardly) by a sense of humor. How he could have disarmed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week with a little self-deprecating humor! Nancy Reagan showed him how at the Gridiron Dinner three years ago, when she shattered her image as an insensitive lout from Palm Springs or Rodeo Drive with one song (a spoof of "Secondhand Rose") at her own expense. You can't imagine Ed Meese doing something like that, can you? Perhaps self-deprecating humor takes a bigger man than Ed Meese can be.

One suspects that the curse of zealotry lies at the heart of Meese's problem. He is a zealous law-and- order man, a zealous defender of the strong ("the progressive income tax is immoral -- I don't think we should penalize someone because he's successful.") and doubter of the weak (as when he questioned whether the hungry were really hungry). He's a fierce defender of free enterprise and businessmen, but he's never made any money himself -- no small part of his current troubles.

Meese could become a prominent figure in Washington only because of his personal tie to Ronald Reagan.

Like so many other presidential sidekicks in our history, Meese is a man you couldn't imagine riding into Washington by acclamation -- the way, say, Edward Levi became Gerald Ford's attorney general. An assistant D.A., an aide to Gov. Reagan, a spokesman for law and order, an unpretentious law professor -- there are no signs of greatness in Meese's resum,e.

But there are many clues in Meese's past about his personality. He grew up in modest, middle-class surroundings, the son of an Oakland tax collelctor. He escaped to a bigger world, winning a scholarship to Yale, then graduating from law school in Berkeley, but he made no attempt to move into higher society. Instead he became an assistant D.A.

He was one of those prosecutors who loves to ride around in police cars -- a "police junkie," as they say in the courthouses. He seems to share a policeman's view of the world. He often speaks to police groups in their kind of language (the American Civil Liberties Union could be described as "a criminals' lobby," he said once).

Well into his 40s Meese gave up one weekend a month and two weeks every summer to the Army reserve, which he also loved.

Meese came to Washington as President Reagan's principal aide; originally he was responsible for both foreign and domestic policy in the White House. But over time others displaced him in both roles. He became notorious for his chronic disorganization and his weak staff. The Justice Department is his consolation prize -- in a way he failed upward.

In the fight over his nomination to be attorney general, Meese has revealed a surpassing confidence that he is in the right, regardless of how others see his past actions. It is no accident that the "pragmatists" who eventually won control of the Reagan staff in the first term considered Meese their rival. He does seem to be an ideological man -- and a fervent servant to Ronald Reagan.

Total confidence in one's own rectitude can be dangerous. Meese's self-assurance has infuriated a number of the Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee. They ached to hear him say, just once, that perhaps he had done something wrong by accepting obviously preferential treatment when he went back on active status in the Army reserves in 1981, then got promoted to colonel; or when he accepted $60,000 in unsecured loans, on which interest payments were not demanded for long periods of time, then later helped the man who made the loans get two federal appointments; or when he blithely asked that a check he had already cashed from a Reagan transition committee for "moving expenses" be crudely altered to say "consulting fee" after he learned that it was probably illegal to accept moving expenses.

But Meese never did say he had been wrong, only that he might do those things differently now that he has a better appreciation for some people's sensitivities about such matters. In effect, Meese seemed to say, if you guys want to be sticklers, I'll let you be sticklers, but I'm not going to let Common Cause and a bunch of Democrats tell me the difference between right and wrong.

To defend himself, Meese virtually memorized the report of independent counsel Jacob A. Stein, the lawyer appointed to investigate charges against him. Stein found no evidence to justify bringing criminal charges against Meese, a finding Meese interprets as a clean bill of ethical health. But if you pay close attention to some of the episodes described by Stein and by Meese in his testimony -- none of them earth-shattering, but all of them revealing on a human level -- you begin to see a portrait of a man dissembling. Questions about ethical standards loom large.

Here's one example. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Meese's most hostile critic on the committee, noted in Wednesday's hearing that Meese had testified that he paid the expenses of moving from California to Washington out of his own pocket. Metzenbaum said:

"Now, there was more to the story at that time, wasn't there? There was the story that you had received $10,000 for travel ($ moving)$ expenses from the Reagan transition committee)$, that you had deposited it in your account, that when you had been advised that it was probably unlawful to receive it for travel expenses, the check and the check stub was changed to 'consulting fee.'

"Don't you think the . . . $ Committee was entitled to a more full statement explaining that you had received $10,000 for travel expenses, and then the balance of the details? . . . "

Meese: "Senator, I would not have answered . . . differently as far as paying the moving expenses out of my own pocket. And frankly, at the time it would never have occurred to me that there was any connection, inasmuch as I received the $10,000 as compensation for services, always considered it as such, paid the income tax on it and it had no connection with moving expenses from that time forward as far as I was concerned."

Metzenbaum: "Well, as a matter of fact, you say you always considered it as such, but when you received it, and when you deposited it, it was reimbursement for travel expenses. That is an incontrovertible fact, is that correct?"

Meese: "That's correct. But I say from the time that I agreed to accept that compensation, in my discussions with the transition trust officials, from that time on, I always considered that as ordinary income, as consulting fees . . . ."

Keep in mind: Meese accepted and deposited a check for "moving expenses," then had it altered later, after he'd heard that a lawyer had questioned whether it was legal to accept moving expenses. Metzenbaum reminded Meese that when asked about his request -- apparently to Helene Van Damm, Reagan's longtime secretary who is now ambassador to Austria, and was then the person who drew the check for $10,000 to Meese -- that the check and stub be altered to say "consulting fee," Meese had replied:

"I did not ask her to change the records per se. What I did was, I said I did not want to accept moving expenses because I felt I did not even want to question about it $, and that therefore, the only way I would accept any money . . . was on the basis that it would be for compensation for services rendered . . . ." (Meese's testimony is being shortened slightly with these elipses, but no material information is being omitted.)

Meese confirmed to Metzenbaum that he had so testified. Then Metzenbaum noted that later Meese said: "I therefore asked them to change their records to show the appropriate basis on which I received the money." Metzenbaum asked:

"Now, did you or did you not tell Miss Van Damm to change the check stub and the check . . . ?"

Meese: " . . . The full explanation is that I talked to her, the best of my recollection, about the basis on which I would receive the compensation, and then said that the record should be corrected to accurately reflect that basis."

Consider this classic Washington story.

Meese, who had retired from active reserve status long before coming to Washington, was induced to go back on active duty by Army officers who obviously saw the benefit of having a senior White House aide in their ranks, and who stretched the regulations to get Meese on active status (this was Stein's conclusion). Meese was then put up for promotion from his old rank of lieutenant colonel to full colonel, but he hasn't satisfied all the educational requirements for the promotion. It is possible to waive the formal education requirement under certain circumstances, but a senior Army officer asked to look into this possibility recommended, in a memo to Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr., that this would not be a "normal and regular affair," and would look as though Meese had received preferential treatment.

Marsh, an old Washington hand (he was a counselor to President Gerald Ford) confronted "somewhat of a dilemma," as the Stein report put it. He found a clever solution. He sent the memo of the Army officer who questioned the propriety of promoting Meese to Meese in the White House. Then, by Marsh's own testimony to Stein, the Army secretary called Meese to ask if he'd read the memo. Instead of a direct reply, Meese said -- again, according to Marsh -- that he "did not wish to take any action," but wanted to stay out of the matter and let the Army decide what was best.

Imagine Marsh's situation: he has sent an explicit warning to the counselor to the president that it would be irregular to promote him, and would create an impression of preferential treatment. Marsh phoned to insure that Meese had gotten the warning. Instead of acknowledging it or -- as Marsh must have hoped he would -- accepting the warning and declining the promotion, Meese bucked the question back to the secretary. What should he do?

Meese got the promotion. When it became a subject of formal investigation later, Meese was asked about that exchange with Marsh. "Mr. Meese had no recollection of receiving the memorandum," the Stein report said. Nor did he remember the phone call from Marsh.

In testimony last week, Meese went further. "The memorandum was never shown to me," he said. "I don't remember the phone call [from Marsh]," he added, "but I'm sure that in the phone call nothing was raised about any questions [concerning the propriety of the promotion]." How, one might ask, does Meese recall what was not said in a phone call he does not remember?

Meese has since resigned his active Army Reserve commission, but he kept the rank of a retired full colonel, and will presumably be entitled in later years to a higher pension because of the promotion.

Memory is a tricky subject in the Meese matter. He has failed to recall dozens of points, especially points that might prove embarassing, like that phone call from Marsh. Meese testified last week that a few dozen occasions of forgetfulness had to be measured against the hundreds or thousands of facts he was able to recall for the committee and for the Stein investigation.

With that in mind, consider a couple of examples of the things Meese says he has forgotten. First, a letter from John McKean, the California accountant who arranged $60,000 in unsecured loans for him, and who later -- with Meese's concurrence on the White House personnel committee -- was appointed to the Postal Board of Governors.

Later, in November 1982, McKean wrote a letter to Meese containing a bill for $12,000 in unpaid interest on the loans he'd arranged, and proposing an agenda for a meeting the two men had scheduled a few days later. The agenda included the interest payments, and McKean's desire to be appointed to a longer term on the Postal Board of Governors.

Meese's dealings with McKean are the most blatant case of his failure to respect government regulations about avoiding even the appearance of any conflict of interest. Even the Office of Government Ethics, which formally cleared Meese, acknowledged that passing on McKean's appointments to the Postal Board created the appearance of a conflict, given the two men's financial relationship.

What about that letter from McKean mentioning both money due and his desire for a longer term on the Postal Board? Meese did not recall it. "I receive literally hundreds of letters in the course of a week," Meese testified. But how many letters does he get from men to whom he owes $60,000, and who are asking him to pay up $12,000 in overdue interest? Is it possible to lose track of such a missive in the press of business?

People who know Meese and his way of operating insist that it is possible. In testimony last week Meese also claimed not to remember a letter from a California savings bank threatening to foreclose on its mortage on his house. "I doubt if I even read that portion of the letter," Meese said of the foreclosure threat.

In a dramatic moment in last week's hearings, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) told Meese that his past behavior was "beneath the office" of attorney general. Biden also said that some might consider him naive for thinking that the attorney general should be "a person of extraordinary stature and character." He was right about that.

We might prefer an America in which the senior law enforcement official was beyond reproach, but we don't have that kind of standard. Two of the last eight attorneys general were found guilty of crimes; two others were given the job primarily because they were the personal lawyers of the presidents-elect who chose them. Meese has been nominated to succeed one of them -- William French Smith, no ethical gem himself.

Remember Smith's improper tax shelter? Or the improper $50,000 "golden handshake" he got from a client on his way to Washington four years ago? He gave them back, of course -- 16 months after he took them, but only days after they were revealed in The Washington Post.

Smith changed in Washington, colleagues and acquaintances say -- just as Reagan has changed, and Mrs. Reagan, and Michael Deaver and most of the original California crowd. They've liked Washington, and adapted to it. But Meese, they say, has hardly changed at all. He lives in "a cocoon," as one California acquaintance put it; he doesn't seem to learn much from experience.

In the Dirksen Building's caucus room last week, one had the feeling that Ed Meese really didn't understand what his critics fault him for. Biden wanted him to grasp the notion of a higher standard, but Meese gave no sign of getting it. Perhaps that idea lies outside his cocoon.

Babbitt, too, found it impossible to see himself as others saw him -- to see what a hypocrite he had become.