A serious case of homesickness appears to be afflicting Paul Coverdell, the Peace Corps director and former Republican state senator from Georgia. In his first 18 months of running the program, Coverdell took 45 federally paid trips out of Washington -- 27 to Georgia and 19 of those to his hometown of Atlanta. Most were long weekenders. If the Peace Corps needs an agency song, let it be "Georgia On My Mind."

Coverdell's penchant -- uncovered by Al Kamen of The Post, who rummaged through agency travel records -- is grounds for accepting the view that the Peace Corps director is a self-promoter keepinghimself visible to the home folk for the day when he jumps back into Georgia politics. He came from that background, hitting it big when he helped direct George Bush's southern campaign in 1988.

While Coverdell flits back and forth to Georgia like a bee that's lost its hive, Gerard Roy, the inspector general of the Peace Corps, reports that "evidence of strain, confusion and chaos" continues to be found in the program. Overseas, "many Peace Corps volunteers are succeeding in spite of the agency."

If any federal program deserves to be free of administrative bungling or being run by a politically ambitious party functionary, it is the Peace Corps. Until Coverdell, the agency, blessed either by Providence or dumb luck, had a succession of selfless directors who had no political agenda of their own and who accepted their jobs as a privilege, not a plum.

From Sargent Shriver, the first director from 1961 to 1966, and Loret Ruppe, from 1981 to 1988, and others in between -- including Jack Vaughn and Richard Celeste -- Peace Corps administrators have been as true to their mission of service as have the volunteers in the field. Loret Ruppe, who refused to take a paycheck until she thought she was competent enough to run the program, set a standard for travel that Coverdell has ignored. She regularly visited volunteers in their host countries, went to their projects in remote villages, learned as much as possible about local cultures and returned home with fresh ideas on how to improve the agency.

A source of the current breakdown -- aside from Coverdell's Georgia junkets -- is that the Peace Corps is being made an arm of Bush administration foreign policy. For nearly 30 years, one group of Peace Corps officials after another has worked mightily to keep the agency untainted by politics or ideology. The Peace Corps' legislative purpose -- "to promote world peace and friendship" -- forbids politicization.

Coverdell's scheme is to send large numbers of volunteers into Eastern Europe, mostly to teach English. Again, the Peace Corps inspector general has a clearer head. He reports that as volunteers are being sent to Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European countries, established programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America are suffering budget cuts. This shouldn't be allowed, the report of the inspector general stated. The reasoning is sound: existing Third World programs aren't to be scrapped because Bush officials now see Eastern Europe as the politically fashionable place to be.

Coverdell sought to justify the shift -- and shiftiness -- by claiming that Sargent Shriver was fully behind sending 10,000 volunteers into Eastern Europe. Not quite. In congressional testimony last spring, Shriver said that having 10,000 volunteers in Eastern Europe is a worthy goal but not if it "would significantly detract from the Peace Corps' Third World-country mission." With fewer than 6,000 volunteers worldwide, the previous goal of 10,000 people serving in the Third World is still a distant budgetary dream, leaving aside Eastern Europe.

As Coverdell's reward for loyalty to George Bush in 1988, the party should have crowned him with an assistant secretaryship in the Commerce Department, benefitting his past employment as the head of an insurance marketing firm. But the Peace Corps? No. Some 120,000 Americans haven't volunteered since 1961 because they wanted to advance their careers or political views. They did it, as Shriver said at the agency's 25th anniversary, out of a desire to be "servants of peace."

Every Peace Corps director until now has shown reverence for that ideal. To ignore it is to invite the inevitable: "strain, confusion and chaos."