We sat in a small theaterlike room at quarter to 3 on a Thursday afternoon, waiting for the show to begin. TV lights, press-corps jokes, anxious administration aides, a thick document portentously called "Inquiry Into Certain Matters Relating to T. Bertram Lance and Various Financial Institutions" - and then, suddenly, an unexpected visit from the President of the United States, come to profess his belief in the integrity of Bert Lance. And now here was Lance, trying unsuccessfully to squeeze 100 per cent moral absolution out of the carefully shaded document, just as some of his press interrogators were trying unsuccessfully to squeeze from it evidence of criminal behavior. Didn't he think he was a pretty sleazy character? No, he didn't think that at all. I thought: Waht are we doing here?

In fact, were were participating in another of the clumsy rituals whereby the nation's standards of conduct for its public officials are being redefined. Everywhere you looked, there seemed to be evidence of it. Baltimore, a jury was trying to react a verdict on Gov. Marvin Mandel: Louisiana's recently resigned Rep. Richard Tonry began doing time for campaign-financing violations; the former speaker of Missouri's House got seven years for extortion and mail fraud, and on Capitol Hill, Leon Jaworski was settling in for an investigation of alleged Korean influence buying and other assorted hanky-panky.

To the Chicken Littles among us, it all seemed corroboration of the moral worst-case: a generation sunk in corruption and wickedness. They know what they think, or suspect anyway, about Lance, and never mind the careful distinctions made by the Comptroller of the Currency between lawbreaking and questionable banking practices. Others, sick to death of the holier-than-thou attitude of the press, and mindful of the difference between a felony and a pattern of cut corners, are beginning to cry "witch-hunt." I think it's only when you contemplate what's wrong with both these theories that you begin to see where we really are: in an age not of unusual corruption, but rather of reform - with all the moral confusion and sanctimony and excess that invariably entails.

First, for the corruption and shady dealing that seem to be so prevalent just now. They didn't sprout overnight like some crop of poisonous mushrooms. What is different is that these things are being exposed, prosecuted, legislated against or - at a minimum - reconsidered in terms of what is tolerable practice in public life. Anyone who thinks that influence buying and selling came to Congress with Tongsun Park should retire from the discussion and take up something else, liek flying saucers. I was interested the other day, in reading Anthony Sampson's book on the arms trade, to learn that from just about the day there were international arms dealers, there also were bribes of foreign-government officials who might be crucial to the deals - a 70-year-old way of life that many think was just invented by Lockheed.

I am not saying that it's OK because "everyone does it." Nor do I mean to compare the ethical slips and slides of a Lance to the actionable kinds of misconduct of which he is not accused. My point is that what has changed is not human nature, but the rules. We have raised the bar on the ethical high jump, and officials are getting shinned and falling flat as far as the eye can see. You don't have to believe that all bankers are as careless as Lance evidently was about certain matters to believe that in another day and time the issue wouldn't have amounted to as much.

Former Vice President Agnew, on being ushered out of office, complained bitterly on this score. The rules were being changed in the middle of the game, he said. The statement was accurate but the grievance misplaced: That is the risk high livers and fast steppers in government take. What are we supposed to do? Write a "grandfather clause" protecting the boodle of those who were getting paid off before the public changed its mind? Provide what is called in social-welfare circles a "hold harmless" provision for officials who were on the take prior to a date certain? I don't see why we shouldn't leave some of the thrill in wheeling and dealing, a sense that you can't be sure wht the ethical fashions may hold for tomorrow.

All this brings us head to head with those who perceive not an outbreak of corruption, but a witch-hunt in the events of the day. Beyond question there have been some injustices and excesses in pursuit of what is grandly called the "new morality." But that is an inevitable consequence of a national effort to move in on some of the toughest ethical questions in public life. Whether in the Lance episode or the congressional influence cases or any of the court trials in the news, it seems that people are trying to get at the informal, wink-and-grin, vaguely conspiratorial quid pro quo arrangements that are the web of so many public and semi-public transactions. By definition such an effort is going to lead the investigators into exposure and condemnation of practices that are not regarded as criminal violations, and it is also almost certain to produce some unfairness, some harm to reputations that is underserved.

In think we need to be very careful about zealotry, and one way to begin would be to junk the awful cliche about how the American people, poor things, are in constant danger of losing their faith in government and so forth. This presumed distinction between the government and the people is a fake. Jimmy Carter used to like to say that he wanted to provide a government "as good as the American people. "That's generally been precisely what we've had, and it's what we've got now. The Bert Lance issue is not just about how one enterprising businessman did his thing; it's also about the standards we wish to enforce in a general area of public and private activity.

I once read that around the turn of the century when an anti-corruption administration was ksicked out of office in New York, people took to the streets chanting merrily, "Well, well, well - reform has gone to hell!" Some part of me, when I think of that, always breaks loose and dances recklessly with them, the part that prefers Falstaff to the suddenly reconstructed and responsible Prince Hal - the part that has never been terribly comfortable with the moral pretensions of some in this government. I bring all this up by way of explaining why I think that no matter what the outcome, the Lance affair has been a wholesome and beneficial thing. Whether he stays on or leaves office, the questions raised concerning Lance's record have helped to establish a new and better standard of conduct for public officials. And its presumably humbling effect on some of the morally smugger folks in the administration might help ensure that we will get reform with compassion - reform with a human face.