THE PRESIDENT'S Commission on the Bicentennial of the Constitution, under the chairmanship of Chief Justice Burger, has been meeting to discuss plans for the country's official celebration of its basic document of government. So far it has been finding it advisable to do so in private.

"That's a heck of a way to get started," a Senate aide, angered by the secrecy, told United Press International. "We're dealing here with promotion of values and virtues of the Constitution of the United States."

Hear, hear! Well said. And who, in fact, said it? "The staffer," reports UPI, "asked not to be named."

Well, we suppose there are limits to this bicentennial spirit of openness, which may be appropriate, since the Constitutional Convention of 1787 wasn't open to the public either. There were leaks from it, but they weren't as well-orchestrated as today's. Although the men who attended the convention were of such high caliber that Jefferson called them an "assembly of demi-Gods," even they didn't quite grasp the necessity of discreet attribution as practiced in the late 20th century.

If they had, they might have arranged for some of the more controversial provisions of the Constitution -- say, those involving the powers of the states and the central government -- to be explained to journalists in a series of background briefings and private conversations, perhaps over drinks or coffee, with quotations attributed to "a senior official, or at least he would be if we had a central government" and "an authoritative demi-God."

In fact, if the Founding Fathers had had a more sophisticated notion of how to get the message across, we probably wouldn't have needed The Federalist papers at all, and schoolchildren today would be memorizing the immortal words of a "well-placed source in the independence movement": "We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor -- and that's off the record."