tit.u.lar / adj /[L titulus title]1 a: existing in title only; nominal b: having the title and usu. the honors belonging to an office or dignity without the duties, functions, or responsibilities.

On their flight to Anwar Sadat's funeral, the 37th, 38th and 39th presidents of the United States talked about what former presidents always talk about when they find themselves together: the writing of their memoirs, the establishment of their presidential libraries, the way they earn their living out of the Oval Office.

Such are the threads that bind presidents together, and what a pity and what a waste.

The very ordinariness of those conversational subjects stands in contrast to the extraordinary nature of the jobs they once held. For them, as for most of their presidential predecessors, the unique experience they gained during their White House years nearly always proves to be of little value to the nation in their years as largely forgotten former presidents.

They bear a title, but one that carries with it no role.

That's one reason why the Sadat funeral provides so memorable an example. It shows that former presidents can serve in special ways, and, even more, it raises questions about why we don't utilize them better.

For much of American history, former presidents have been treated disgracefully. A grateful public accorded them distant respect and little else. They had no pensions, no health benefits, no payment of any sort from the government they had led. Even the wealthy among them endured humiliations and hardships.

Thomas Jefferson, for all the magnificence of his estate at Monticello, was so broke only five years after he left office that he had to sell his treasured personal library to Congress for $23,950 (and thus was born the Library of Congress). But that wasn't enough to bail him out: 12 years later he petitioned the Virginia legislature to hold a lottery to dispose of all his property, including Monticello, so he could pay his debts. On his death his family had to sell the household furnishings to satisfy his creditors.

His great revolutionary collaborator and political rival, John Adams, was so strapped for cash that he had to take a job as city assessor and surveyor of highways in Quincy, Mass.

Ulysses S. Grant was so destitute he didn't even bother to leave a will, since all that existed of his personal estate already had been sold to pay his debts. Only the posthumous publication of his memoirs by his friend Mark Twain gave his family any financial security.

Not until 1958, when Congress established a standard pension policy for former presidents, did such scandalous treatment change. Since then, pay and benefits (and perks) for the former presidents and their families--their Secret Service protection, their staffs and office space, their free mailing privileges--have been improved dramatically. In the last generation the annual public cost of supporting former presidents has risen from about $55,000 to some $22 million this year.

Now they can live comfortably and in dignity, but they still face a strange half-life in which their special abilities are basically unused, not only to their detriment but also to that of the country.

The situation today is the same as that described by Walter Lippmann in a newspaper column 31 years ago:

"There is an inherent absurdity in the American practice of discarding ex-presidents, and indeed other high officials, just when by the highest and surest way they have acquired wisdom in government and public affairs. This absurdity has nothing to do with the Constitution. It is simply a bad habit which can be corrected whenever the American people wake up to the fact that the quality of a government like the quality of an army is maintained by bringing the raw recruits into contact with seasoned troops. The blueprints of reorganization, like the manuals of drill, are useful. But what really counts the most is that those who have fresh energy but are without experience should mix with those who, though they are beginning to be tired, have learned the facts of life."

For several reasons, the need to tap their talents is even greater now.

Since we began counting ourselves, in that first national census taken in 1790, more than 400 million people have been American citizens. Yet from then to now only 39 individuals have served as president of the United States.

At some points, especially in the early days of the republic, having former presidents around wasn't so uncommon. In John Quincy Adams' administration four were living: his father, John Adams, and three Virginians, Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Once, briefly, in the first year of the Civil War, there were five: Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. But for large periods of our history we had none.

Today, it's quite possible that in the immediate years ahead we will have the greatest number in our history. Our present former presidents are relatively young. Two of them, Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, are 68, while Jimmy Carter just celebrated his 57th birthday. Since we seem to be in an era of one-term presidencies, the prospect is that they will be joined by others. And, partly because of television, younger and younger people are running for high office.

Most important, in the increasingly complex nature of the world, the former presidents have something more to offer. They carry with them a shared body of experience and special knowledge that could prove invaluable on critical issues.

Since we have no counterpart to the British House of Lords, where former prime ministers can continue to serve their country actively after they leave their high position, suggestions have been made to give former presidents a seat, without voting rights, in the Senate. Other ways of using them effectively in the national interest come to mind. The notable example of Herbert Hoover's brilliantly heading a landmark official commission on government reorganization could be employed for former presidents on other major public questions.

President Reagan's recent use of his three immediate predecessors on the Sadat funeral trip is another good example. But whatever the best method, the larger point remains. As usual, Lippmann put it best, and long ago:

"Somehow or other we must find ways to recognize distinction, to use experience and not to discard it. Until we find ways to do that we shall not only waste good public servants, when they are most fit to serve, but we shall never recruit great talents that are so desperately needed."

The waste is more than just of good public servants. It is squandering of a rare national resource.