There has been some cluck-clucking over the fact that the American Embassy hostages got so little attention at the Democratic convention. I suppose this reticence can be justified as part of the post-rescue-mission policy of playing down their importance, the theory being that we will secure their release sooner this way. But as far as I was concerned, the Democrats didn't need to dwell on the forbidden subject. The whole five days were, in some dreadful, dispiriting way, a parody of Iran. Jimmy Carter got taken hostage at his own convention.

He also got to play chief negotiator for his release. But Kennedy got to play ayatollah. Think for a minute about the argument in the (real) hostage case, which holds that by letting the Iranians know it was of overwhelming importance to him to get the Americans out, Carter all but invited them to make ever higher demands, to tease and torment him -- and to keep the hostages prisoner for the purpose of doing more of the same. Not everyone recognized the logic of this at first (I didn't), but it is clear and compelling. In New York last week, a hearty public endorsement by Sen. Kennedy -- a photogenic closing-night embrace -- became the thing Jimmy Carter wanted too obviously . . . and too much.

A lot of people who watched the proceedings up close believe that Carter, in the end, got only that scant and humiliating benediction from Kennedy because he, Carter, had played it too "mean" with the Kennedy people during the week, trying to give them as little as he could and so forth. What else could Carter expect -- this reasoning goes -- from the people he managed to so infuriate by his lack of generosity on the platform and his efforts to drive a hard bargain?

My observation was just the opposite. I thought Carter was abject, naive and far too eager to please. Had that creature the Democratic Party would surely insist on calling a "Marsperson" turned up to watch the convention, he or she (to follow protocol) would have mixed up the winner, Jimmy Carter, was suing for peace. Even on Mars, I don't believe they do things that way.

Let me take something out of the argument here: I am not referring to the initial magnanimity shown the Kennedy losers by the Carter winners after the rules fight was over and Sen. Kennedy himself had got out of the race. This was civilized and politically sound behavior. The Carter people understood that Kennedy delegates and aides had been let down with an awful bump -- abruptly and before they'd had a chance to vent their feelings or register their views. And so it was right on all counts for the Carter victors so assiduously to promote the Kennedy people's immediate interest: "Go ahead, pals, be our guest . . . yell your lungs out, pay your passionate respects to the man you worked for." So far, so good.

But something else began to happen almost immediately. The bulletins out of headquarters, the hot tips, the lead items on the evening news all seemed to concern when, if ever, the Kennedy people would grant the president and his political apparatus this or that favor. It still wasn't certain that Kennedy would stay in town, not certain that he would come out for the ticket, not certain that he would appear on the podium closing night. There just hadn't been enough concessions made to his economic views. Would it be good enough, then, if the president said he was for all but certain items on the Kennedy economic wish list? Well now, just a minute: that depends on how the president phrases the statements about the sections he objects to -- we won't put up with any out-and-out opposing language, you know. . . . He'd better not dump on the parts he thinks are terrible.

These incredible negotiations went on all week and it seemed to be forgotten, almost from the outset, that Kennedy wanted and needed something too, that it just wasn't an easy option for him to go home mad, that what he needed was a face-saving reason to stay because it wasn't in his interest to leave. But by Tuesday he had become imam of the event, his every pleasure and displeasure, smile and frown being studied with apprehension. And the negotiations went on, even over such things as how warm and demonstrative the gestures had to be (not very) when Kennedy appeared on the podium. Could a president really have let himself get into such talks, or let his agents get into them?

Yes, I know that Carter wanted the liberal left wing of the party as represented by the Kennedy forces at the convention not to leave mad, that he was pushing for "unity." But in the first place, he let himself get pulled into a mug's game so that there was no concession he could make that wouldn't generate a demand for yet another. He had some cards, too, and he needed to play them. He could only avoid trouble if he showed himself willing to risk it, indicating that there were some concessions less acceptable to him than being booed or walked out on.

This was true also in relation to the minority-plank platform people who played revoluntionary council to Kennedy's imam. The Democrats have fallen to behaving as if they were theologians, and the mullahs of Madison Square Guarden (and mullah-ettes) were especially fierce and unforgiving in their demands for spiritual and ideological purity according to the dogma as enunciated by them. Carter bought far too much of it, propitiated these avengers too much, especially when you consider that they are famous for not ever staying propitiated for more than 20 minutes at a time. There was also the clumsy, central and all-important fact that Carter knows much of what he bought is bad business, programmatic nonsense, dead wrong.

So Kennedy had his revenge -- not by compelling Carer to swallow this economic nostrum or that, but by enticing him to play out a role that subliminally reminded everyone -- I have no doubt of it -- of this president's particular gullibilities and flaws. He reenacted all his worst scenes. Another way of putting it is this: Carter won, Kennedy lost and Carter got taken. Life really isn't fair.