THERE ARE a lot of "we's" at The Washington Post, but the one you are about to hear from comes about as close as you can get to being the basic, collective "we"--the voice of The Washington Post, speaking for The Washington Post. This is the space, after all, where funless earnestness and even grandiosity are not accidental as they may be when they turn up elsewhere in the paper: we have an actual mandate on the editorial page 1)to speak for the paper as an entity, unruly though the entity may be, and 2)to get dead serious about it.

We are dead serious now. The subject is Jimmy Carter, The Ear column and The Post. Mr. Carter and Rosalynn Carter are upset about an item that ran in The Ear column last week. That item, which was accurately sourced, made a relatively modest point that had, nonetheless, a momentous implication for those who read it casually. The point was that a story was circulating (various unnamed bearers of it were alluded to) that Blair House had been "bugged" while the Reagans were staying there during their pre-inaugural/post-election visit to Washington; it was reported to be by virtue of a tape of such eavesdropping that Mrs. Carter learned that Mrs. Reagan wished the Carters would leave the White House sooner than scheduled--a story, incidentally, that we recall Mrs. Reagan herself denying at the time.

It is one thing, however, to read that item to say that such a tale is circulating and being given currency by estimable public figures who repeat it-- and quite another to conclude from this that the place was in fact bugged and that the Carters did in fact perpetrate such a scheme. We weren't there. But everything we know about the presidency of Jimmy Carter suggests otherwise, that it was false. This newspaper took plenty of editorial exception to various actions and policies of that administration. This is no secret to anyone, the former president included. But it always did seem to us and still does --especially as the values involved are being eroded in present-day Washington--that Jimmy Carter was courageous and right in his refusal to play the bugging-taping game, in his insistence on rejecting the precedents for White House invasions of anybody's privacy it wished. Mr. Carter's distinction in this area was real and it was rare, and he can hardly be blamed for wishing to see it maintained.

Perhaps it is foolish to expect people to read newspapers with rabbinical or juridical care, to sift out the fair from the unfair or the justified from the unjustified inferences that can be drawn from a collection of words, even when those words don't add up to what an angry subject thinks they do. The best we can do here, because we feel as strongly as Mr. Carter does about the importance of what he tried to do on this score while he was in office, is to be as blunt and clear about what that Ear item said as we know how. It said there was a rumor around. There was. Based on everything we know of the Carter instinct and record on this subject, we find that rumor utterly impossible to believe.