Of all the lurid features in the bizarre tapestry of "Contragate," perhaps most revealing is the behavior of the Republican Party establishment, which owes all it has and all it is to Ronald Wilson Reagan. With a few honorable exceptions -- J. Strom Thurmond and Ted Stevens come to mind -- the whole damn pack has headed for the tall grass.

What a classic portrait in ingratitude!

Men who are Chairman This and Senator That only because of Ronald Reagan are today conditioning their future support of this embattled president upon their nonnegotiable demand that he sack some of his oldest and closest friends.

Only one month ago, this 75-year-old president was traveling the nation as no other president before him, fighting to save the Senate for these selfsame incumbent Republicans, throwing his arm around men -- some of whom had cut-and-run on him in every major engagement he has fought since he came to the White House.

Is this how they repay the leader who has done more for the Republican Party than any American since Theodore Roosevelt, who brought us back from Watergate to become the party of vision and opportunity, the party of Middle America and the young -- when all the pundits were saying we were finished for a generation?

If elemental loyalty cannot convince these Republicans to stand up and speak out for Ronald Reagan, what about basic self-interest?

Do these Republicans truly think the investigative engines of a hostile Congress and the artillery of an Adversary Press are all being wheeled again into position -- simply "to get at the truth"? Do they seriously believe these pious declamations from the Democratic left that "we must not have another failed presidency"? Do they not recognize that the target here is not Donald Regan, but Ronald Reagan -- that what liberalism and the left have in mind is the second ruination of a Republican presidency within a generation?

"This is the most fun we've had since Watergate," Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, is reported as saying. Bradlee is echoed by op-ed page columnist, Michael Kinsley: "The fall of Reagan is a laughing matter. The only irritating aspect of the otherwise delightful collapse of the Reagan administration is the widespread insistence that we must all be poker-faced about it."

"People in my position have been known to run for cover," declares Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in one of the great understatements of the episode.

In recent years, Republican candidates have taken to prattling at election time about their devotion to "family values." But among the first of those values is family loyalty. And when a mob shows up in the yard, howling that the head of the household be produced, the sons do not force the Old Man to sit down at a table and write up a list of his "mistakes." You start firing from the upper floors.

But we are a nation of laws, and Col. Oliver North broke the law, comes the Republican retort. Surely, we cannot condone that.

But we don't know that Ollie North broke the law.

What we do know is that those Americans who, a century ago, ran escaped slaves up the Underground Railroad to Canada -- they broke the law. We do know that Franklin Roosevelt, who secretly ordered American destroyers to hunt down German submarines in the North Atlantic and to relay the information to the British fleet -- he broke the law. And those Americans who ran guns to Palestine in 1947 and 1948 -- they broke the law. And they are considered now -- and they consider themselves -- to be heroes. And Ollie North is a hero, the Billy Mitchell of his generation, a man who saw further than others and took risks to his own career, because he knew that in helping that peasant army in Nicaragua, he was buying time for his own distracted and indifferent countrymen -- hold "the fort alone, till those who are half blind are half ready."

Ollie North is now disparaged as a "cowboy," a rogue, a "soldier of fortune" by our Lords Temporal on the Hill and our Lords Spiritual in the press. Well, the day the United States ceases to produce soldiers of the kidney and spleen and heart and soul of Oliver North is the day this country enters on its irreversible decline. The president was right. Ollie North is an American hero; and I am proud to know him as a friend.

The writer is White House communications director.