Nov. 4, 1979, to Nov. 4, 1980 -- the passage of precisely one full calendar year between the seizing of the hostages and the holding of American elections has more than a chilling tidiness to it. It is allegorically, illustratively perfect. The terrible events that played out in Tehran defied and defeated any sustained thought in this country and demonstrated the superficiality of our politics as a means of addressing such a situation. Our failure were of memory, imagination, concentration and logic -- and surely a fickle, sentimental public and a hot-and-cold running media gusher had as much to do with this as the policymakers did. We don't know how to think or talk about what happened to us.

Which is not, of course, to say that there has not been an intermittent year-long din, spasms of intense attention and gabble followed, as is the American way, by sudden attacks of amnesia and silence. Our heart -- our great national softy's heart -- is in the right place, but our mental filing system is a mess of misplaced and forgotten emergencies, obligations and sorrows.

Richard Nixon, speaking of a misplaced emergency, was in town the other day to testify under oath in open court on the FBI "bag jobs" committed during his term of office. Big yawn -- page A14 of the paper and lucky to be there, this long-awaited event that, a few years back, would have had them hanging from the affairs. Well, that was then -- Watergate, Jonestown. Three Mile Island, et al., the preoccupations of another season. Will the ordeal of the hostages eventually be like that, Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh blurring, like a kind of Persian Jeb Stuart Magruder and Gordon Strachan, so that much as we once knew about them, we will no longer be able to remember which was which? This all-or-nothing quality of our attention has been very much in evidence since November of 1979. Yet in one sense, the swings in public attention have been deceptive. For whether the plight of the hostages was at the top or the bottom of our collective consciousness at any particular moment, we were, as a nation -- as a public -- moving steadily along in one unhappy direction concerning this thing. We became inured to it. The outrageous became the familiar, the given, the framework in which daily life went on. Little mercles and reprieves along the way engaged our gratitude. We became, in short, a variation on that planeload of hijacked passengers who, in their relief at surviving their ordeal, forgot who brought it about in the first place, often actually sympathizing with their captors.

Some aspect of this psychology was surely infecting our responses by the time the Iranians got ready to offer their "deal" -- i.e., their demands. To listen to the various spokesmen and commentators on the Sunday the president was called back from Chicago, you would have thought they were reflecting on some conventional dispute -- a quarrel with the Japanese over tuna-fishing rights.

It was made to seem normal, respectable, acceptable and even gratifying that these thugs who call themselves a government should have offered their terms. (Hey! Remember Ayatollah Khalkhali, the guy who played with the American corpses on TV? Great news! He supports the demands!) It was made to seem unexeptionable, tolerable for other Iranians to lecture us on how our law and Constitution should not get in the way of paying them off handsomely to give back our kidnapped people. The Iranians in their magnanimity were prepared to forgive us, it was said. Some of the people on our side were talking about "giving" them something so they wouldn't look too bad in the negotiations, some "face-saver." s

I remember feeling a great discomfort at how this was slowly, insidiously happening last winter. We began talking, weeks ahead of the event, of how the hostages would spend Christmas Day -- would they get cookies and cards and so forth? -- the concession/assumption being that they would still be there. Ghotbzadeh that they would still be there. Ghotbzadeh and other emissaries of the regime holding our people were courteously received in other chanceries throughout the world.

The American guilt machine (no foreign competitors there) went to work. It must be our fault, isn't everything? Or at least it must be more complicated than it looked. Down with jingo and macho and the rest of that crowd that would see the event as a terrorist crime. It was not the perpetrators' fault, at least not wholly their fault. Surely, it was someone else's fault: the shah, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter, someone. We began, mentally, to split the difference.

Because the gyrations required for all this are so easily disrupted by flesh and blood reality, by the particulars of the case, we also indulged the human mind's favorite distancing trick. The players became categories, lables, types. There was a bit of a fuss over what we would call the tormentors who held the captives in the embassy -- "students" seemed too favorable -- so we settled for "militants," itself a rather rosy and idealistic sounding term. The individual captured Americans became the generic "hostages," a blob, a sorry group. We picked up, somewhere along the way, "hard-line mullahs" -- one of the wonders of modern journalese, comporable only to that glory of the Lebanese civil strife, "Christian gunmen." We immunized ourselves from the pain of our countrymen and made it possible for ourselves to accommodate the brutality of the Iranians.

I see you lining up at the microphones to ask questions, see those hands waving impatiently. No, I don't know wxactly what I would have done; and, no, I wouldn't have wanted to risk World War III. But it is just this kind of nuke 'em or nothing reductive argument that paralyzes our government, just as it was the staple of the idiotically framed "war and peace" issue of the campaign. We flee from real and (therefore) harder alternatives, grease the way by making the drama a typecast unreality and by volunterring, always, to share the culprit's blame. Barbara Walters on the debate asked the best question of the campaign on this awful subject -- what we should do next time. No one answered.