It's possible, I suppose, that Attorney General Edwin Meese really didn't read that memo from his friend E. Robert Wallach about the Iraqi pipeline project -- the memo that said the project would involve an attempted bribe of the Israeli Labor Party, in apparent violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. If Meese did read the memo and failed to report it, he was breaking the law himself. The memo was addressed to him, and was in his files, and Meese did push the project (without ultimate success). But then, attention to detail and an easily aroused suspicion were never the strong suits of the nation's leading criminal justice official.

Wallach is an old friend of Meese who was content to practice personal injury law in San Francisco until morning arrived in America around 1981. Although he signs his name "e. robert wallach" in some sort of crackpot homage to e. e. cummings, Wallach's own literary genre is the memorandum, not poetry. He was fond of bombarding his pal the attorney general with long memos relating to various business interests that had hired him for his administration connections. Some of the early works in Wallach's oeuvre -- variations on the theme of federal contracts for the Wedtech Corp. -- have already gotten the author indicted. Such are the sufferings of artists throughout the ages.

It's easy enough to imagine the look of delight on Meese's face when informed by his secretary that another epistle from Wallach had arrived. And it would be easy enough to believe that Meese's reaction was a simple, restrained, "Oh, just file that, honey, would you please?" Except for the fact that he seems to have acted on the memos. He arranged a White House meeting that got an Army engine contract for Wedtech over the Army's own objections.

In the case of the Iraqi pipeline, Meese seems to have helped get the project unstalled not once but twice. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, an agency that insures American investments abroad, wanted assurance that the administration really supported the project. Meese helped to set up another one of those little White House meetings, at which National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane supplied the assurance. Later, another attempt by OPIC to torpedo the project on legal grounds was defeated through an unusual bureaucratic maneuver in the Justice Department that Wallach engineered and Meese supported.

Still, the memos were long and life is short (ars longa, vita brevis), and the eye sometimes does tend to take shortcuts across the pages of even the greatest classics of literature. Even if Meese did read Wallach's missives, he might well have missed what he says are 10 little words referring obliquely to the attempted bribe. So let us give him the benefit of the doubt. Thus the pipeline episode joins the long list of cases in which members of the Reagan administration have staked their reputations on ignorance.

The president himself has asserted the ignorance defense many times, especially in connection with Iranamok. Vice President Bush's hopes to become Ignoramus-in-Chief may turn on his ability to convince people that he was as far "out of the loop" (his own charming euphemism) as his boss. We know he attended meetings where the connection between (a) selling arms to Iran and (b) getting Iranian terrorists to release our hostages was drawn in a way sharp enough to penetrate the thickest skull, and where Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz protested that this went against everything the administration stood for. But Bush insists he was not present when the key links were drawn and was too dense to put two and two together. What a campaign slogan: "Vote for Bush. He was in the men's room."

Meese also has protested ignorance in connection with Iranamok. He says he knew nothing about the illegal diversion of funds to the contras until his investigators discovered a memo in Oliver North's files at the end of November 1986. Were it otherwise, his delay of investigations into contra funding during previous months would be damning instead of merely inexplicable.

But the attorney general has sailed the good ship Ignorance through many a storm before these two, most notably in connection with recurring controversies over his own personal finances. In 1982, for example, Meese was having trouble selling his California house. The trouble was lifted off his back in a complex operation involving below-market mortgages and forgiven loans, all "totally separated from any knowledge on my part," as Meese testified to Congress. Ignorance saved him from indictment on this and related matters two special prosecutors ago.

Some of the Reagan administration's self-proclaimed ignoramuses may be lying, of course. But who can doubt that substantial genuine ignorance was a factor when the administration was simultaneously selling arms to one side in the Iran-Iraq war and pushing a project to help the other side finance its own arms purchases? Ignorance may be a good way to stay out of jail, but it's not a very good way to run a government.