Jimmy Carter (USN-Ret.) today can look Adm. Hyman Rickover directly in the eye. It was, of course, a stern admonition from Rickover to a young Jimmy Carter that, according to the future president's autobiography, both changed his life and provided his publisher with the volume's title: "Why Not the Best?"

For almost certainly Jimmy Carter has done his very best in trying to secure the release of 50 American citizens who were kidnapped almost six months ago. Carter, in his pursuit of their rescue, was willing to forfeit the proudest claim of his administration, that not a single American had died in combat during his presidency. He worked, according to reports, long, hard and continuously to do something about the Iranian tragedy.

Unfortunately, the American hostage crisis was not, and is not, the sort of problem he handles best. Problems that are susceptible of solution by personal attention and total commitment are what this president does best. The Camp David peace agreements, where Carter, through his stamina and determination, could truly influence the outcome, and the Senate ratification of the Panama Canal treaty are the sort of political situations in which Carter excels. In both these cases, there was an identifiable objective and a fixed set of political players, along with certain political obstacles, and in which Jimmy Carter's intelligence and indomitability prevailed.

That's not the way most political problems, including Iran, come to a president. The players change constantly and so do the players' agendas and the outside political climate. Most political questions are less precise and generally less likely to be resolved by dogged relentlessness.

To understand Carter and his decision to resume campaigning at this time, it is helpful to remember the Plains Baptist Church and Carter's role in the attempt to integrate the congregation. At considerable personal and professional risk, Carter, deacon and businessman, fought a lonely and unpopular fight for integration. He did his best. The majority of his fellow parishioners disagreed with him, but Carter had more than passed the Rickover test.

As governor of Georgia, it was Carter who took the courageous step, and all the heat for it, of hanging the portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the statehouse.

Now Carter, having done his best by his own both severe and personal standards, has announced his return to the political campaign. Some critics will point to his Feb. 13 pledge to "the world" that "I am not going to resume business as usual as a partisan campaigner . . . until our hostages are back here, free, and at home." But that is not the question.

It would have been far less contrived and even reassuring if the president had announced his decision to campaign by acknowledging that his long absence from his constituents had led to a sense of estrangement, isolation or simply that he fell out of touch. Instead, Chuck Manatt, the California attorney/fund-raiser, almost on cue asked the planted question and the president gave the answer about the problems now miraculously being "manageable." It was both transparent and tacky.

For the first time since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a secretary of state had resigned over a policy difference. American volunteers were forced to terminate a daring and bold strike into Iran. American foreign policy isn't, by anyone's definition, in "array." Inflation rages through the land, blighting both the present and the future.

But what must be remembered is that the president believes and knows, probably with certainty, that he has done his best in this crisis. Like the conscientious non-athlete of everyone's childhood memory, he has tried to the very best of his ability. Just as he tried to integrate the Plains Baptist Church, he tried to win the return of the hostages. He no doubt will continue to do so, but in some way Phase One of the effort -- his best effort -- has ended.

The question that awaits the answer of his fellow citizens, in the privacy and judgment of voting booths, is whether Carter's best is good enough for them -- and if there is anything better available.