In one respect, it's not fair. Starting with the Nixon "Checkers" speech and moving smartly along through the scandals, lapses, quirks and crimes of the past two decades, people in this town have become scholars of the elliptical, not-quite-plausible explanation, the "how I really did't do anything wrong, although I can see how it might look that way" account. So Dr. Peter Bourne's extremely strange reconstruction of how he came to write a Quaalude prescription to a nonexistent person never had a chance. You could almost see the "tilt" signs going on as people began to read his statement, and if you strained you when almost hear their murmurs when they reached the end: "Oh, God . . ."

Meaning, of course: Here we go again . . . there are just too many unanswered questions. As one who sat (astonished) in the press briefing last year during which Jimmy Carter blessed Bert Lance even as we all held in our laps the hefty official documents that raised so many suspicions concerning Lance's conduct, I would insist that there are differences. Chief among these is the fact that this time around action came fast. Bourne, with every opportunity to defend his performance in court, if it comes to that, and to offer further public elucidations, is no longer in the White House.

But even so, like his immediate predecessors in the various scandals, embarrassments and indiscretions that have plagued Carter, he has done the president a lot of harm, and my own guess is that the Bourne affair will somehow have a transforming effect on what has gone before, that with this particular bit of folly there will come a widely shared perception and definition of what ails the administration internally. Nor do I think it's unfair. For by now, it seems to me to be reasonable to ask how these people who are so close to Carter view him and his authority, how they view their own roles, what the pattern is and what it may mean.

I start with the fact that the trouble has come mainly from those who are closest to Carter. The people other presidents might ordinarily turn to when there is an embarrassment in the air - kin, old and favored associates, close aides - seem to be the sources of the embarrassment. Yes, it is true that other presidents have been caused great personal and political distress by family and top aides - Sherman Adams, Walter Jenkins - in the past. But it has come to be a trend in this administration. It is brother Billy and old pal Andy Young and superaide Hamilton Jordan and intimate family friend Bert Lance and (now) original campaign acolyte Peter Bourne who have on accasion "done their own thing" - to the detriment of Carter's political fortunes.

I am aware that the above Carter's political fortunes.

I am aware that the above-mentioned group in fact isn't a group at all, inasmuch as it includes greatly different people who have been charged with greatly different (and more and less serious) lapses. But they do have two things in common: their closeness to Jimmy Carter and their evident failure to understand what could and would (and can and will) embarrass or damage him in their own behavior.

You could argue (and I am sure it will be argued) that these people have come under varying degrees of attack precisely because they are Jimmy Carter's intimates and have accordingly been targeted for disagreeable publicity and worse by his establishment enemies . . . and so on. But that argument, in my judgment, just won't wash. For one thing, the self-expressive, self-indulgent streak that has underlain all of the disputed actions, from Andy Young's insistence that he will say what he damn pleases to Billy Carter's exploitation of a presidency nominally committed to a Spartan self-denial of the profits that can come from association with the office, has spread out from Carter's intimates through the ranks of his government.

It's not just that there is practically on political discipline in his administration. It's that there is something approaching political anarchy. No one has seemed particularly worried about saying or doing anything. Midge Costanza - among others - showed the way. Don't get me wrong. I have absolutely no views on where her office should be or what her official duties should include. But like everyone else in this town, I was staggered by the fact that Carter couldn't seem even to move her from the White House or make her quit telling her troubles to the press when he wanted to. Midge Costanza, like the others, seemed to do pretty much as she pleased.

I cannot imagine what goes through the head of someone like PeterBourne when, ensconced in the White House, he writes out a prescription to a fictitious person for a very powerful and very suspect drug. I can't imagine it any more than I can imagine what Bert Lance was thinking when he got Jimmy Carter into so much trouble or how Jordan could have let himself be such an obviously embarrassing White House representative at the now famous dinner for the Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors in Washington. To put it mildly, these are not dumb people. Or evil ones. But they appear careless and without concern for the risks and burdens and niceties of office in a breathtaking way.

That seems to me to bring us to the nub of the matter. For when you consider of the matter. For when you consider the substance of the trouble each has brought on the president, you see one common, distinctive feature. It is that none of these misdeeds has been of a driven, power-seeking or even government-oriented nature. These have been excesses of laziness, self-indulgence, convenience and personal gratification. Me-decade corruption, as it were, leaving all that power-grabbing, scary Colson and Haldeman stuff back in the dark ages. That noise you hear, in other words, is not the clanking of the would-be jailer's chains. It's a spoon being insistently beat, tantrum-fashion, on a highchair tray. This is not an excess of discipline or drive. It is an excess of insouciant, what-the-hell, why-not thinking.

What I am saying is that a lot of people around Jimmy Carter, including many of those most contemptuous of the orthodox, political establishment way of doing things, are acting out a kind of political Peter Pan thing. They refuse to acknowledge the obligations that go with their power and position, almost as if by this refusal they could retain the wonderfully burden-free state that went with being "outsiders." But politically speaking there is something approaching the suicidal in this attitude.

And there sits Jimmy Carter in the White House, Mr. Morality himself having to answer questions over the first 19 months about his close associates' entanglements with the quest for dough, the use of drugs, boozing whoop-de-doo and blabber-mouthing. An open administration, they called it. I think he had better close it down, if he can, at least in its chaotic, permissive aspects. The carelessness may be keeping those around him "young," but it is aging Jimmy Carter plenty fast.