In his best Arkansas drawl, Jim Guy Tucker, chairman of the White House Conference on Families, began the story of the snail darter.

Not long ago, he told the delegates, a great big dam was held up so that everybody could think a while on the fate of a little bitty snail darter.

Well, he continued, flashing every bit of dimpled charm he could muster, if we could do it for the snail darter, we can do it for the family. He urged the delegates to suspend the hostilities that had mined their path to Baltimore and to jawbone their way to a consensus.

The family, however, ain't no snail darter. Eight out of 10 people, according to the Gallup Poll, say that their families are either the "most" or "one of the most" important elements in their lives. This sort of intense caring isn't the stuff of consensus.

So there were a lot of predictable family spats in this first of three conferences. There was the predictable clash on the flashpoint issues of the ERA, abortion and homosexuality. There was the predictable walkout of a portion of the "pro-family" caucus, predictably staged in front of the press room. And there were the predictable cries of politics, pro-Carter and pro-Reagan, left and right.

But the most striking thing that came out of this conference wasn't in the 57 resolutions passed by 671 delegates. It was in the one consensus that did emerge by the time everyone was ready to leave Baltimore: a consensus on the terms of the problem.

I am not talking about the "hot issues" like abortion or homosexuality. These were largely out of place at the conference and remained totally polarized. I mean, rather, the problem in the basic relationship between our public and private lives.

At the opening luncheon, President Carter told the delegates, "Where government involvement is helpful, let it be strengthened. Where it is harmful, let it be changed."

In one workshop room after another, people of almost all backgrounds and political persuasions agreed on something similar: the need for some government support for families and the resentment over other government intrusions. The most heated right-wing people, like Connie Marshner, editor of the "Family Protection Report," assured people that they were not opposed to all government programs for the family. The most ardent liberals, like Marion Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, went out of their way to remind delegates that they, too, were aware of the times government was guilty of excess.

The right and the left overwhelmingly and jointly approved resolutions in which it was easy to see the difference between government support and government intrusion. The majority called for an end to the marriage tax and a beginning to a new policy that would support Social Security and pension-fund vesting for homemakers. They voted to overhaul national health policy to provide funding so that the elderly can be cared for at home.

But in general, philosophical terms, it wasn't that easy. The line between "helpful" and "harmful" government ideas and policies is often elusive and highly controversial. We differ in our beliefs in the amount of help people need, in the ability of government to provide that help and in the results. One person's idea of support is another person's idea of intrusion; one person's perception of genuine need is another person's perception of dependency.

Connie Marshner, who organized the pro-family caucus here, said that our attitudes toward government depend on how we read human nature. She reads it as fallible: "People don't want responsibility. They will shift responsibility whenever they can. They don't want to take care of themselves."

In her view, then, the task of public policy is to keep people, willy-nilly "independent." She called the support for government programs "tired old liberal ideas." But often during this conference, we were offered a choice between "tired old liberal ideas" of more government help and "tired old conservative ideas" of less government intervention.

The conference was weighted -- though not "stacked" -- with professionals. Forty percent of the delegates were in family-related fields. No more than one-third of the delegates came out of a conservative political background. So it was not surprising that so many of the resolutions called for government funding, tax credits, exemptions, watchdogs.

But the deep division in our attitudes about government is much closer than that vote implies. We see these things in double vision. Our focus shifts with each program, each policy, each turn of phrase. Family has simply become a volatile word.

Carter told the group: "I want the conference to be a catalyst for a new awareness in government of the importance of families and for a period of intense reassessment of programs and policies." From here, it looks like he has gotten more than he wished for.