Once upon a time, a supremely self-assured group of men set out to prove they could create the most powerful of animals. They would make a lion. So they labored, mixing and adding this and that until, finally, the familiar form of the king of beasts began to emerge. All that remained was to fashion the head and put it in place. Amid much self-congratulation, they gathered around the still-dormant figure and then affixed the finished the finishing touch. Their efforts were successful. The lion sprang to life, and proceeded to act the way lions always do. As the ancient storytellers finish the tale: Foolish people, In their pride, Made a lion -- Then they died.

Moral: Be sure you can control the forces you create.

On Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the White House, a carpenter says he photographs the scaffolding rising above him after every work day. " want to have a record of how it keeps growing," he explains, with an air of professional pride. This time, that press reviewing stand form directly before where the new president will review his parade looms larger and appears more permanent than ever: now concrete footings have been poured over the sidewalk, the better to anchor the structure, and the carpenter says it measures a good foot wider than four years before.

Its growth symbolizes goverment itself. No matter how passionately the presidential candidate inveighs against Washington's sprawling, wasteful federal Eviathan, and no matter how fervently he pledges to reduce it, each inaugural offers evidence of the outgoing president's failure to fulfill those campaign promises. So it is this year for Jimmy Carter, doubtless so it will be for Ronald Reagan when power next changes.

That isn't to suggest that Carter, or obviously Reagan, created the federal lion, but the experience of this latest administration does raise questions about the ability of any president to tame it.

No president struggled harder than Carter to make government work better; none tried more faithfully to achieve his stated goals. Yet, despite noble efforts and, yes, achievements -- in changing Civil Service machinery, in making regulations more intelligible, in attempting to stem the flood of bureaucratic paperwork -- his administration draws to a close without any tangible signs that the basic nature of government has been altered during his stewardship.

Certainly, Carter leaves behind no personal stamp on Washington in the way of some of his predecessors. And, it seems, no group of loyal legionnaires will remain to keep aloft a distinctive Carter political or governmental standard. Even before his term ends, an unseemly spate of scapegoating over what went wrong and who is to blame is being played out in public among some of his followers.

Perhaps it's naive to think this political story would have any other ending. From the beginning, an air of seeming arrogance (or was it just insecurity?) surrounded the Carter ranks. They were going to do it differently, they disdained earlier examples that pointed to other ways of operating, they shunned the advice of those who had been through it before, they declined to make changes until too late. Thus, at least, Washington's frequent complaint about them. Now they are departing, and hardly anyone seems to take notice.

In the exercise of power in Washington, an inaugural always brings a twilight time, a time when the city awaits the next curtain without paying much heed to the last. they are also normally periods of good will. The problems and inevitable failures of the departing regime tend to be forgotten in the warm glow that envelops the capital. Nostalgia reigns. Even old enemies are heard to speak well of their erstwhile administration opponents.

But this time, to a degree unmatched in years, Washington appears to be giving barely a thought to the defeated president. It's almost as if he doeosn't exist. There's a certain poignancy in that fact, for the lack of attention being paid Carter today typifies much of this time in office. And Jimmy Carter, who has been displaying a splendid example of grace in defeat since November, deserves better than that.

Before he left for Plains last week, Carter held a number of private meetings with various people -- governors, campaign operatives, members of Congress and Democratic Party money-raisers. I'm told no records were made of Carter's extemporaneoud remarks on those occasions. If so, that's a shame, for apparently he was at his best.

Immediately after one such session, a politician from a major northeastern state was saying how impressive the president had been. A few months before this person had been bitterly critical, contemptuous even, of Carter. Now he couldn't praise him enough: the president had been witty, informative, philosophical, eloquent, moving even, the politician exclaimed. His words of praise tumbled out. If only Carter had been that way in the campaign, he went on. There's no way he would have lost.

That's not the first time the private Carter has drawn words of praise, while the public president seems to have left little impression. But then neither is it the first time a political leader has been consumed by the powerful forces, whether or not of his creation, surrounding him. Nor, you can be sure, will it be the last.

Bring on the lions, open the cage, the next great wild animal tamer has arrived.