On the day before the inauguration, she got a cab in front of the Mayflower, took it to Rock Creek Park Cemetery, and walked toward a cluster of pines surrounding the celebrated memorial to Henry Adams' wife, the statue of a grief-stricken woman, a suicide, face deeply hooded by a shawl. "In the old days when we lived here," she said out loud, more to herself than to the friend by her side, "I was much younger and not so very wise. Sometimes I'd be very unhappy and sorry for myself. When I was feeling that way, if I could manage, I'd come here alone, and sit and look at that woman. And I'd always come away somehow feeling better. And stronger.I've been here many, many times."

The next day, Eleanor Roosevelt stood on the steps of the Capitol and watched as her husband (and cousin), Franklin, took his first oath of office. She had never wanted to be a president's wife, she told the same friend, and dreaded living in "captivity," as she put it, inside the White House. One sorrow after another had befallen her, and her life had never been the same after she learned, years before in Washington, that her husband had been having an affair with her social secretary.

In the years that followed, of course, the Roosevelts went on to become the most politically active couple to occupy the White House. Few people actually touch the lives of millions and even fewer literally influence history, but they did. They stirred love and hatred as none before them, and none since. And all the while, as we now know, these two most public people bore the knowledge of painful secrets about their private lives that would have been explosive politically.

Their personal story, however poignant and troubling, is far from over. In a curious way it now stands as an example of perhaps the most difficult issue facing Americans in the 1980 presidential election. The issue is character, and how to assess it.

The private lives of public figures have fascinated gossips and dramatists, both cheap and serious, frivolous and talented, for centuries. Long before Freud, Shakespeare was drawing chilling psycological portraits of the neuroses that motivated some powerful leaders and tormented others. And if Alexander the Great was a homosexual and Winston Churchill given to bouts of depression, their places in history have not suffered. Nor has knowledge of the foibles of other "great" historic people detracted from their public following.

Only Americans, it seems, have wanted to believe all their leaders are always noble and pure -- something of the "cherry tree" syndrome has afflicted us. There's something characteristic too, about the way we have cherished happy endings and avoided harsh truths. (Only Americans could transform that Irish great antiwar song, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," about the horrors suffered by troops sent to Ceylon 300 years ago -- "you're an eyeless, boneless, chickenless egg, you've got to be put with a bowl to beg" -- and turn it into the happy Civil War ballad "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" -- )the boys will cheer, the girls will shout, the ladies they will all turn out, and we'll all be gay when Johnny comes marching home.")

But that was in the more innocent past. If we wanted to believe the best then, now in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, we appear to want to believe the worst.

The revelations one week ago today in The New York Times that Eleanor Roosevelt had a long and intimate relationship with a former journalist, Lorena Hickok, raising clear implications of lesbianism, are products of the new age of frankness. Not so long ago, any knowledge of private sexual adventures or preferences, or such acts as excessive drinking out of public view, were carefully kept out of the "respectable" public prints. No public figure can enjoy such freedom from intimate examination today. But as the case of the Roosevelts shows, trying to draw a judgment on character from what we know about their private lives becomes a much more difficult matter.

Whatever the reality of their personal relationship, did the way they lived their private lives in any way betray their public trust or public promise? Were their private actins indicative of public hypocrisy, and therefore marks of their unworthiness? Should they be judged by anything other than their public records, and if so, what?

These are not abstract questions asked about remote figures from the half-remembered past. They bear directly on our political present, and particularly on the candidacy of Edward Kennedy. If, as is almost certain, Kennedy runs for president, his private life will be examined as probably no candidate's before him. Not only the fatal accident at Chappaquiddick and how he behaved in the tragedy will be explored; his relatinship with his wife, with other women, personal details of his life going years back will be aired. And so should they.

Handling these questions fairly and intelligently is going to pose a great challenge to press and public alike. In the end, a more difficult one will remain.

Americans clearly are looking for two traits in their next president -- competence and character. The trouble is, can you separate one from the other? In the past either we didn't know, or didn't expect to know.

Now, in this far more open society, voters are forced to judge their leaders not from a lack of information, but from a mass of public and private material, often contradictory, that makes understanding the character of potential prsidents infinitely more complicated.