THIS IS a wistful, melancholy time for the government just turned out of office. There is something in the pathos of the moment that can generate compassion even in this hardhearted town, especially when you measure the glum expressions of the outgoing crowd against the celebrations and high hopes of the new bunch -- and remember how happy and confident the newly fallen were four years ago when they took the town. Jimmy Carter's government was always odd in certain respects, one being that it never quite seemed a government at all, but rather a kind of confederation of bright people.But this had to do with the president's own conception of an adminstration, and whatever its other effects, the Carter style of governing did produce some notable acts of good government by good people.

We are not going to go through the buildings one by one nor the agencies desk by desk. We are not even going to mention some of those whose labors we admired greatly. But a few individuals can be taken as representing the best of certain virtues of the Carter administraton. We start with Vice President Mondale, who managed the next to impossible feat of staying loyal to his principal without sinking into the idle, slavishly sycophantic and generally somewhat embarrassing life style an ungrateful nation imposes on its vice presidents. Surely one of the innovations Jimmy Carter promised and which he must be given credit for delivering on was his promise to raise the vice presidency to a a useful, dignified office. He did.

There is the whole realm of environmental and consumer concerns, for which the Carter administration took a goodly amount of abuse, the charge being that it was in the thrall of extremists and loons. Yes, there certainly were excesses. But they were not and will not be the chief legacy of the Carter administration in these areas. As an example of an adminstraton official who will be remembered for distinction and success, we cite Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus, who gave over endless hours of productive attention to the Alaska lands bill. Enactment of that legislation was a momentous achievement, and Mr. Andrus was largely responsible for it.

As an exemplar of the patient, professional, supremely devoted worker there is Deputy Secretary of Stated Warren Christopher, who has been an uncomplaining and tireless executor of Carter policy and a man whose legal and diplomatic imagination helped get the country (and his president) out of more than one bind. Mr. Christopher had a somewhat old-fashioned approach to government service -- he did not seek a whole lot of notoriety or public praise, being content to accept responsibility as distinct from credit and to remain in some respects nearly anonymous at the center of power.

As an example of candor and honor under pressure we give you that much kicked around figure, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Charles L. Schultze. We are aware that no one could call the Carter years a triumph of economic prescidence. But these are truly terrible times for economic schools and theories and predictions, and no one comes off as a sterling example of insight or capacity to manage the economic forces loose in the country and the world today. Say this for Mr. Schultze: he and his colleagues chose a policy designed above all to create jobs, and in that regard they succeeded. Had they moved more rapidly and forcefully to restrain inflation, the country might well have paid a substantial penalty in lower employment. Though some of the adminstration's decisions turned out very badly, you still must say they were taken for substantial reasons well grounded in the past generation's experience with unemployment and its costs.

That idea can in fact be transposed to many other fields of policy in which the Carter adminstration failed to live up to its promise and its own hopes. But it was not for a lack of good and honest people doing the best they could to tame and manage the unfamiliar world in which we live now.