Talk with anyone in this administration from President Carter on down and you will get a sad story of how heavily the unhappy inheritance of the past weighs on the troubled present. Watergate, the misdeeds of the CIA and the FBI, the staggering national debt, the rising tide of costly imported oil - these are only a fraction of grievances that the Carterites after a year in office trace back to the Johnson-Nixon heritage.

Hardly anyone on the team is more afflicted by this weight than Attorney General Griffin Bell, and with good reason. This outward genial Geogian must cope with past "black bag" transgressions of the FBI without destroying morale of the agency. It was his bad luck to see his choice of FBI Director, the highly respected federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., withdraw for reasons of health. Bell is now combing over a new list of names, with a deadline less than two months away.

But Bell's biggest struggle is with the scope of the Department of Justice in the major field of antitrust. Is the prosecution of giant conglomerates a dead letter, a fading memory of an era long gone? If the answer is yes then the giants will continue to hold their dominant position in the marketlace, with all this means to the economics and politics of an America nearing the 21st century.

Bell is well aware of how overwhelming are the obstacles to antitrust prosecution under the methods of the past. In the projected suit against American Telephone and Telegraph, the giant of giants, the company has said it will take 10 years to gather the documents to respond to a suit. Since 1969, the government has been presenting its case against IBM, and that company has submitted a list of 400 witnesses to be called in answering the antitrust charge.

"I wouldn't want to say it's dead, but you've noticed that I've changed the whole policy," Bell told me. "I have started in not only to say we've got to have big cases but we've got to find a way to handle big cases.

"The big antitrust problems are in the big cases. And one area completely untouched in the past has been the shared-monpoly case, which we are now getting into."

Bell is forming a commission made up of six members of Congress, five members named at large, the head of the antitrust division in Justice and one other government official concerned with the problem. This presidential commission will concentrated on how to try the big cases and on exemptions and immunities. The study is expected to take six months.

Under the present approach, the goal is "discovery," which opens the way to an endless paper chase down the corridors of corporate power. Bell points out that in an oil case brought by the Federal Trade Commission, Exxon said the company had been called on to produce 78 million documents.

"The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were put in to make to easier to discover the truth, but they are so wide-ranging you never finish. It's a simple thing: The rules provide that you 'discover as to maters.' We're trying to get that changed to 'discover as to issues,' which means the judge has to, in the inception of the case, define the issues and then discovery will be limited to those issues."

In a speech to the antitrust section of the American Bar Association, Bell said it might be necessary to move the major cases into Congress for resolution, that the courts seemed incabable of handling them. The reaction, according to the Attorney General, was a roar like that of a freight train. The lawyers didn't like it one bit.

"Well, I said later I was trying to get their attention, and I got their attention. You've got to take charge of these big cases and stay on top of them from the first day."

Talking of abuses within the FBI such as those that have been disclosed in the past, Bell says that with an agency of 20,000 you can't ever be sure. You would have to appoint another 20,000 to keep watch on those in office.

"We have got to admit, recognize past errors. We've got to show mercy where we can. But we've got to be certain that nothing else happens, and we're going to deal from a clean slate in the future.

"Something could be going on that you don't know about. I don't believe it's going on. I'm thinking about putting out an all-points bulletin of some sort under my name just to make certain in some dramatic way if I can. I'm thinking about it right now."

At the end of the first year, the sorting-out process has just begun. The indictment of John Kearney for his part in the use of past techniques of breakin and surveillance stirred a storm of protest both within and without the FBI. That is only one of a number of rough patches the Attorney General is struggling through.