TRADITION, LACED WITH a helping of political affinity, has it that almost any presidential list of Medal of Freedom winners can be, and is, heavy with the names of public figures -- many from within said president's very own administration. So it was no great surprise to learn this week that Jimmy Carter's final roll of 15 recipients of the country's highest civilian honor includes seven past or present members of the Carter White House. But what brings us rising to our editorial feet with enthusiasm and applause is Mr. Carter's recognition of a special person in this community whose "modest experiment" 15 years ago has grown to mean so much to so many children across the land.

She is Margaret McNamara, and her idea was born in a classroom of a District public school, where she was a volunteer reading aide. She encountered two fifth-grade boys with severe reading problems. "One of them told me he had never had a book of his own," she recalls. "When I brought in some of my son's books for the boys, they were just amazed that anyone would give them a book."

From there things spread to other youngsters in a handful of the city's public schools. Using her organiztional know-how and, as she readily acknowledges, her helpful connections as wife of the secretary of defense at the time, Mrs. McNamara went to work drumming up grants, contributions and volunteers for a program that she named "Reading Is FUNdamental."

The concept was brilliantly uncomplicated: let children choose, for themselves, books that personally interest them, and let the books be theirs to keep. This way, youngsters may learn not only to read, but to want to read.RIF was an instant success. In a year, Mrs. McNamara had rustled up the wherewithal to get RIF operting in 61 schools, giving away paperbacks at the rate of five for each child to 43,000 youngsters.

In a couple of years, money from the Ford Foundation enabled Mrs. McNamara to take the program to other parts of the country. Today RIF has more than 4,500 projects going, in about 13,000 places in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam -- and right here. RIF is not only in the schools, but in libraries, hospitals, mobile units, migrant worker communities, Indian reservations, day care centers, schools for the blind and correctional institutions.

Margaret McNamara's work of love -- and love of children -- is now sure to have infinite impact, reaching out to touch and motivate countless new generations. The strength of her devotion to it has been a constant source of inspiration to others who have given freely of their time to invest in the futures of this country's children. From the community, and from all her book-toting "customers" everywhere, this pause for thanks.