The mailbag was overflowing this past week, much of it from readers provoked by the casual mention that there had been only one complaint about the injustice to former NASA chief James Beggs in burying the story about his total exoneration. All approved of the sentiments expressed here, apologized for not having reacted more quickly, and some of course used the occasion to say there was no point in ever complaining to The Post anyway.

The mail did include two letters that raised some other questions, one about an anonymous quotation from a White House official, the other complaining about a reference to "the ultimate Jewish mother" in a movie review.

The letter about the White House quotation came from Thomas F. Driscoll, executive editor of the Peoria Illinois Journal Star, and it disturbed me no end. It was answered immediately but for days kept nudging me for a better reply. Mr. Driscoll was concerned about an article in The Post, which he reads every day to keep on top of things in the capital. Here's his letter: "For several weeks, I have had this clipping on my desk from time to time trying to figure it out. Can you tell me what the authors meant: Did a White House official really say this?"

The clipping he enclosed was an article jointly written by Don Oberdorfer and Lou Cannon, two of The Post's top-notch diplomatic reporters. They quoted an unnamed White House official saying that under the Constitution only the president had the authority to declare war. I wrongly interpreted the midwestern editor's main concern as the accuracy of The Post, and had so responded. It eventually dawned on me that here was an anxious voice from the heartland of America asking to be reassured the quotation was wrong, because if it wasn't, he feared for the future of his country.

The second letter was dashed off, standing by the quote, but assuring him there were enough checks and balances in the White House to contain an idiot or two. Checks and balances in the White House? A lieutenant colonel, preparing to testify before the congressional committee, had given new meaning to this phrase that no longer had anything to do with the separation of powers decreed by the Founding Fathers. A telephone conversation substituted for the letter. No political party had a monopoly on idiots who somehow find their way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; I recalled that during my tenure there I was startled to be asked by a factotum, who supplied information to the president every day, what NATO stood for. The republic survived him as it will survive the unnamed White House official who is rewriting the Constitution. It is always comforting to recall the Kansas farmer who made the rounds in the capital and wrote home that he was grateful they weren't getting all the government they were paying for.

The other letter, protesting the reference to a typical "Jewish mother," came from folks who run a Washington Jewish theater, and I trust it was tongue-in-cheek, a good-natured bid for attention. Even so, I had difficulty with it. The letter objected to the description of the title character in a Mexican movie, "Dona Herlinda and Her Son," as "the ultimate Jewish mother, a Latino Yiddishe mama." The reviewer, later in his critique, did make the mistake of mentioning that one of her weaknesses was tequila. That did it. How do you answer a protest like that? Here's one way:

"I'm afraid the term 'Jewish mother' is now in the public domain just like bagels and Levy's rye bread, facing a bleak future of abuse and misunderstanding by Jews and goyim alike.

"I'll wager you the reviewer has never met a real live Jewish mother and wouldn't know one if he saw her, much less a Latin version.

"The term has separated itself from ethnic identification, and I daresay the Jewish youth of today no longer know what a real Jewish mother is like. Perhaps people in the arts, like yourself, should do something to preserve its original warm image and the devotion and integrity, as well as the smothering, that went with it. You might consider as a future project for your theater the production of a play titled "The Last Jewish Mother," a vehicle not only to entertain but to educate the new generation of Jews about their heritage and what Jewish mothers were all about. But if you want to sell any tickets, you better call it: 'The Last of the Red Hot Jewish Mammas.' ''