"The fate of the hostages is too important to the hostages, their families and to our country to make it a political football," President Carter said the other day.

He said it solemnly, with a straight face, just as if he hadn't been working the hostage issue to his political advantage almost from the start. And it was said in reponse to some pretty heavy political game-playing by Ronald Reagan on the hostage question even while he, too, was mouthing similar pieties.

As of this writing, hopes are rising for the hostages' quick release, and the political game-playing is suitably subdued. The return of the hostages would relieve a national agony. It might even be judged, justifiably, as a triumph for patient diplomacy under almost impossible circumstances.

But it would not redeem the manner in which both candidates have played fast and loose with the hostages. Reagan is something of a Ronnie-come-lately to the hostages as a campaign issue. But this is no more than a distinction without a difference in the way the two men deal with difficult and sensitive problems of foreign policy.

Consider first the Carter record -- a veritable catalog of hypocrisy. You remember the so-called Rose Garden strategy of hiding behind the hostage issue to avoid debating his Democratic challenger, Sen. Edward Kennedy (and then emerging when it suited his purposes, with the hostages' plight still unresolved.)

The same can be said for his early morning wake-up call to the voters of Wisconsin on primary day last April with a national televised progress report on the hostages that, it can be stated on good authority, he had reason to know was overly optimistic.

My efforts to research that incident reveal that the president kept top State Department officials up most of the night while Swiss intermediaries were being pressed to provide the latest assessment from Tehran. The report he received of the chances that the hostages might at least be turned over by their militant kidnappers to some sort of responsible Iranian government control was far more restrained in its optimism than the report he gave Wisconsin voters, according to an official intimately involved in the process. w

Last month he was at it again, telling a Houston audience that recent indications from Tehran "may very well lead to a resolution of the crisis." On the same day, his own secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, wouldn't substantiate that estimate.

So much for not making the hostages a "political football."

The hypocrisy might have been enough to raise yet another fundamental difference between Carter and Reagan. You might call it the straight-shooter issue, as distinct from the hip-shooter issue Carter is trying so hard to hang on Reagan.

It has to do with character, consistency and coherence, and my reading of the Reagan record suggests a clear edge for the Republican candidate. A little antique in his views, perhaps, too set in old ways -- but consistent.

Or at least so I thought, up until the last few weeks when the straight-shooter issue began to blur. I am not talking now so much about the new and more positive Reagan view of the People's Republican of China, or the general muddying of his stand on nuclear "superiority," or his more sympathetic attitude toward newly emerging, leftist-leaning governments in Latin America, as reflected in his recent televised foreign policy address. But there is obviously a fair amount of tactical trimming going on in the late stages of the Reagan campaign.

More serious than all that, however, is Reagan's own self-serving, insensitive plunge into the hostage issue -- which gave rise to Carter's pious homilies about "political football." In fairness, you would have to say the president was provoked. With no futher elaboration, Reagan charged that Carter's foreign policy somehow had "helped create the entire situation that made [the hostages'] kidnap possible."

"The fact that they've been there that long is a humiliation and a disgrace to the country," Reagan added, only a month after he issued a formal statement saying that alternatives to the adminstration's effort to retrieve the hostages are "not a subject for debate." He wanted, he said, "to assure the American people that I will not make these negotiations a partisan issue in the campaign."

Although Reagan comes late to the business of playing politics with the hostages, the straight-shooter issue is beginning to look more and more like a wash.