Superlatives are commonplace in this capital: "Historic breakthrough" are the coin of the realm. (Richard Nixon set the high - or low - in the genre when the first man-on-the-moon space crew returned: "This is the greatest week in the history of the world since creation," he said.) God and universe notwithstanding, it's been many years since news from abroad has created such a genuine flush of excitement in Washington as that now coming from the Middle East. The events taking place there this weekend have swept away much of the staleness of this jaded city bringing with them an uneasy mixture of hope and apprehension. It's new, it's real, it's happening before our eyes.

You'll forgive me, then, for turning to an old, and mundane subject. It lacks the war-end-peace stakes of the Middle East. But it's personal and painful and full of anguish for many - and at least as much a part of the life and workings of this political city as all the visible trappings of Washington. I'm taking about that age-old problem of how to get a job in the government. And about whether it's merit or connections that count.

In the last few days I've met four people who all see a small part of the process, and all have strong feelings about it. Three of them are job seekers of varying age, qualifications and back-grounds. The other is a special assistant to a Cabinet officer. When Jimmy Carter was elected, the resumes began flowing into the that department, 10,000 in all. Today, those resumes are gathering dust in that office. Hardly anyone got a job that way.

My friend has been around town for years, first in the newspaper business and then in public relations for a trade association. The trade association budget has been slasned, and he finds himself looking for work for the first time in 20 years. He turned to the government, "My God," he says, "it's such a cold, faceless, impersonal way of doing things. It's such a bureaucratic maze. I had no idea it would be so frustrating as it is."

First, he had to get "registered" by the Civil Service Commission - that is, to get a job rating for his professional experience. The form for that - a 171 - in itself is imposing: pages in length, requiring the applicant to fill out such information as every job held since the age of 16. just to find out about getting that form, and what to do with it, was an ordeal. Civil Service Commission listed under "federal job information" and got a recorded announcement:

"This is the Washington Federal Job Information Center," the voice sounded, rapidly. "Our information specialists are available. Please hold the line and one of them will answer..."

He held, and held. The message was repeated and repeated and repeated: "This is the Washington Federal Job Information Center..." Another acquaintance, a young woman looking for government work and inexperienced in the ways of Washington, had the same experience. "No one ever comes on the line," she said. "If you have any questions you can't get them answered."

My friend finally spoke to someone, bu the information was disconnected: it would take at least six weeks to get his job classification rating on the Federal Register.

He had another discouraging experience. An information specialist's job was open in an agency, he had heard. He went there, waited all day, and never got to have an interview. "I got the feeling," he said, "that they would like to keep me away from the particular agency, and I know there's an opening there."

He's now concluded that he's got the to find "somebody who can use some pressure to cut through that maze" before he'll find a job.

One of the most difficult problems facing the new Carter administration was reforming and restructuring the Civil Service Commission, which is the government's central personnel agency. Over the years, and particularly during the Nixon-Watergate period, massive abuses of the merit system of hiring occurred. Such practices as tagging applications with pink slips to give them preferred treatment, "must" hires, political referrals and political checks all became widespread. And all have been documented in a story that never has been completely told.

A classic example of the way things were working came in an exchange at the end of 1970. Bob Price, a congressman from Texas, has been on ahunting trip with the then chairman of the Civil Service Commission, Robert Hampton The congressmen mentioned getting a job for a Dwight Jones. After the trip, he followed up his requested with a letter giving Jones' Federal Register number. Immediately, action: a memo from the chairman to the commission's Bureau of Recruiting and Examining asking prompt review of the application; a letter to the deputy administration of the General Services Administration that the administrator marked "urgent, put in mill."

The process continued. Memo from deputy administrator to administrator: "Bob Hampton has referred an applicant, Dwight W. Jones of Livermore, California, to us for a GS-13 or 14 position in the Federal Supply Service. Jones is related to Robert Price, a cousin of the Congressman from Texas, and Bob Hampton would like to help the congressman. I told Hampton that I knew you would want to do everything possible to help I gave the papers to Jack LeMay and asked that he give this matter urgent priority..."

Jones got the job: special assistant to the regional director of the Federal Supply Service, Kansas City. The congressman wrote the chgirman:

"Just a note to thank you for your consideration of my recent request. I look forward to another hunt with you sometime soon..."

It isn't buying the job, in the old-fashioned corrupt sense of Artemus Ward's "office seekers" that permeates Washington. But it does help to know your way around, to have friends and to keep your ears tuned to the network of news that flows through Washington.

Fourth acquaintenance: she's a young lawyer, who had been here for several years, developing a wide circle of friends in various agencies and on Capitol Hill. Now she's back from another city. Washington, she finds, is where she wants to be. In the last two weeks she's called all her friends and cast all her nets. She's had one interview already, an important one. Here's how it came about:

A friends at a dinner party hears that a lawyer on a key House committee has just died. There will be an opening. News relayed. She calls the committee, says she understands there might be an opening. No, that's not correct. But send your resume if you wish.

"I got the feeling there was no hope," she recalls, "that it would be a waste of time."

But by now she knows better how to operate. She calls a friend who works in the Senate, and asks him to find out if there is such an opening on that House committee. Yes, the word comes back, and it's on such-and-such a subcommittee, but they probably aren't going to fill it until after Congress returns in January.

"So then I called another friend whose father is very powerful," she says, "and he took me in to see his father's AA (administrative assistant). His father's AA called to see what the story was, and then said call so-and-so's secretary tomorrow. And that's how I got the interview."

The job looks promising. She's optimistic. It's not like her first experience in Washington when she blanketed virtually every agency in town with resumes and got back almost no responses.

"What I've run into the last few days," she says, "is a awareness that there's no other way to get a job in this town. That is, when I get a job it's going to be because I know someone who knows someone who gets me an interview. Then, from there on out, I hope I'll qualify. But it's getting that first foot in the door that counts."

As I said, it's an old story, older even than the Arabs and the State of Israel.