The fiasco of William Bennett's withdrawal as Republican National chairman before he was even elected resulted both from inconsistent ethics regulations and haste to revive crestfallen party spirits. Doubts as to whether Bennett could both serve as party leader and also earn outside lecture income were characteristically brushed aside by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu in his desire to stir leaden GOP spirits with Bennett's inspirational leadership. In the two weeks after that stunning decision was announced, conservatives abandoned early suspicions that Sununu was trying to silence a right-wing critic.

Far from muzzling Bennett, the brief tenure as chairman-designate put him at the policy table urging tax cuts and convincing the president that Lauro Cavazos, Bennett's successor as secretary of education, should be sacked. So universal in party circles has the approval of Sununu's choice been that his withdrawal comes as a massive letdown. There is no Bennett clone capable of reinvigorating a mature regime entering its 11th year.

Bennett had been on the public payroll for nine of those years. With a young family and no money in the bank, he wanted a nest egg. A nonpracticing lawyer, he looked to writing and speaking: contracts for books with a six-figure advance and for lectures at more than $40,000 a crack.

When Sununu first offered him the chairmanship, Bennett replied he felt uneasy about making money on the outside while leading the party (at a fixed salary of $125,000 a year). White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, President Bush's scrupulously careful ethics overseer, was also leery. But Sununu convinced Gray that "waivers" and "exemptions" were available. "I'm afraid John bullied Boyden into going along," a White House colleague told us.

Bennett's misgivings returned when he met last Saturday with his elder brother, Robert, who is special counsel for the Senate Ethics Committee. Bob Bennett was deeply troubled by the arrangement and expressed doubt that his brother should risk it. On Tuesday Bob Bennett met with Wendell Willkie II, Bennett's designated deputy party chairman, Assistant Attorney General J. Michael Luttig, the administration's ranking expert on conflicts of interest, and Boyden Gray. The group scrutinized the 1978 law that requires a one-year cooling-off period for federal employees before they can have dealings with the government.

How could that law prevent Bennett's giving speeches? The scenario that worried the lawyers Tuesday: Bennett gives a speech to the widget manufacturers for $40,000 on Day One, confers with the president on Day Two, and the president issues a ruling favorable to the widget manufacturers on Day Three. Next, Democrats in Congress are demanding a special prosecutor.

Gray reverted to his usual cautious approach and said he was right in the first place: the arrangement would not work. Bennett on Wednesday asked Gray why he had first flashed a green light and then changed it to red, but agreed with the verdict. So did Bush, after Bennett met with him.

Even if the ethics law had been no problem, Bennett's contract with the Harry Walker lecture agency disturbed a few GOP activists. Lee Atwater had a deal with Walker to double his income as national chairman before cancer incapacitated him, but Bennett's deal is reported to be for much bigger bucks.

The lawyers who met Tuesday agreed Bennett could receive lecture fees if they were limited to universities and civic organizations. But that would not bring in enough money to pay back Simon and Schuster the $200,000 advance for two books it had given Bennett two years ago.

The irony is that Bennett, if a practicing attorney, as chairman could be retained by a Washington-style law firm that actually is in the business of lobbying. Democratic National Chairman Ron Brown receives an undisclosed six-figure income from one of the biggest such outfits, Patton, Boggs and Blow, though he says he does no lobbying. Frank Fahrenkopf received over $100,000 annually from another super-lobbyist, Hogan and Hartson, while running the GOP.

GOP losers abound. Bennett, unfairly made to look greedy, has suffered a sharp career setback. Sununu and his political aide, Ed Rogers, instead of being praised for an innovative choice, are attacked behind their backs for impulsiveness and lack of preparation. The Bush team once again looks like the gang that can't shoot straight.