President Carter's anger was obvious as he upbraided his top officials about a problem that seemed to be growing worse each day.

Scene: A National Security Council meeting.

Subject: Insubordination in the ranks.

"He really chewed ass," said one senior official, recalling that meeting of a couple of weeks ago. As Carter saw it, administration officials were undercutting his decisions - undercutting them through comments to other officials and, worse, to the press.

"He didn't call names," said the official. "But there was no doubt in anyone's mind who he was talking about."

Carter had recently told aides he was angered by several instances where officials - at times high ranking - had gone outside the White House in an effort to build pressure that they hoped would force Carter to side with them on issues of controversy. Among the examples:

In the wake of the Soviet trials of dissidents, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said that a National Security Council consultant, hard-liner Samuel Huntington, asked him to pressure the administration to cancel planned sales of computer and oil technology to Russia. (Moynihan, the world's tallest leprechaun, happily pressured Carter in a Senate speech, but could not resist an elfin identification of Huntington as the man behind the idea.)

Once Carter decided to cancel the Soviet comupter sale and restrict oil technology, Deputy Assistant Commerce Secretary Stanley Marcus told a reporter that Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps had "grave reservations" about Carter's decision. Carter became furious upon reading the quote and called Kreps to express his displeasure, according to an informed source.

State Department officials - including some from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency - were repeatedly quoted anonymously as criticising Carter administration policies on issues, including the sale of weapons.

Military officials at the pentagon were also quoted anonymously as pushing for still harder-line policies.

"The president made it clear he wanted this sort of thing stopped," said an administration official. "Everybody in the room got the message."

As the Carter official told it, the president had been firm and decisive in that National Security Council meeting. He had laid down the presidential line. If that is the way it was, it is too bad that the National Security Council meetings are not regularly televised. The American people would have seen their president at his leadership best.

In the case of the firing and de-firing of Robert T. Griffin, the president was not exactly at his leadership best. He was, in fact, at his presidential worst.

And the problem is that that case was right out there in public for all to see.

The problem arose because Carter's head of the scandal-ridden General Services Administration, Jay Solomon, felt he was being undercut by his GSA deputy - to the point where he could not run his own agency. The deputy was Griffin, a protege and personal friend of Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill.

Decision 1: The firing.

Carter decided Griffin had to be forced to resign or fired. Good; it is his prerogative as president to run the government as he sees fit. (Incredible as it may seem, a high-level White House source swears that no one - not Carter, not hamilton Jordan, not congressional liaison chief Frank Moore - ever stopped to think that O'Neill would be furious and that it would be better to simply execute a lateral shift, moving Griffin out of GSA and into another spot, without fanfare or controversy.)

Frank Moore was dispatched to inform O'Neill. Moore did that, but he never bothered to find out how soon the deed would be done, and so he led the speaker to believe there was still time to intervene with Carter, to perhaps work his political charm and win a reversal. When Griffin got a quick ax the next day, O'Neill - stunned, hurt and humiliated - erupted. A delightful blend of W. C. Fields and Baby LeRoy, he called in the press and wailed that he and his friend had been treated "shabbily."

Decision 2: The de-firing.

The president fell all over himself attempting to placate the speaker like a man frantically trying to stick a cork in an erupting volcano. Carter met with O'Neill and promised that he would, after all, find another federal job for Griffin.

Perhaps there just are no good job vacancies left in government. Perhaps Griffin was unqualified for any vacancies that did exist. Whatever, Carter - the man who has vowed to cut bureaucratic fat and streamline the White House staff - created, just for Griffin, a brand-new White House post: A $50,000-a-year aide to presidential inflation-fighter Robert Strauss.

Suddenly, as the public looked on, Jimmy Carter went from being the strong and decisive leader who would fire a political crony in the name of good government, to a man who can be pistol-whipped into sacrificing even his own fat-trimming principles.

Even Carter's own White House assistants were stunned by the rehiring. "We just made a goddam terrible mistake," said one presidential assistant.

Those who most want Carter to be a success were among the most distressed. No wonder. In private, the leader they see may be a strong and decisive president. But in public - when he was firing and de-firing Robert T. Griffin - Carter looked anything but that.

Jimmy Carter came into office promising the country a non-imperial presidency. But by caving in to Tip O'Neill, he has given us a non-presidential one.