Once, at the State Department in another occupation, I went through a reasonable facsimile of the following exchange with diplomatic correspondents:

Q. Bob, there's a French news report from Hong Kong, based on a radio broadcast monitored in Phnom Penh, that the foreign minister in Hanoi told a visiting Japanese delegation that, if the U.S. were to restrain certain military operations, there "would" be negotiations. Have you seen that? Can you comment?

A. I haven't seen the report.

Q. I thought the foreign minister said there "could" be negotiations?

A. I'm unable to confirm that he said anything.

Q. It could be significant.

A. I agree.

Q. Did the Vietnamese speak in Vietnamese?

A. Since I haven't seen the report you all refer to, I can't answer that.

Q. Maybe it was in Japanese.

A. Maybe.

Q. What is the word for "could" and for "would" in Vietnamese?

A. I'm only slightly embarrassed to say I don't know.

Q. How about in French?

Q. (From another correspondent). That's easy--"C'est possible" and "Il y aurait."

A. Thank you.

Q. What's the difference between "could" and "would" in English?

A. One is more conditional.

Q. Which?

A. Would.

Q. (From another correspondent). I'm not so sure about that.

Q. (Still another correspondent). About what?

Q. That one is more conditional.

Q. Maybe we should all go back to school.

Q. Speak for yourself.

This was a pretty big story at the time. The press dogged the government, and the government dogged the diplomatic channels attempting to get a handle on it. Even though it was established that the North Vietnamese foreign minister subsequently used the word "would," it turned out to have been said with deceit.

I am reminded of this by reading about the diplomatic now-you-see-it, now-you-don't encounter Rep. Paul McCloskey had with Yasser Arafat in Beirut recently. The congressman interpreted a piece of paper signed by the PLO leader as acknowledging a sovereign Israel and joined a colleague in announcing to an international press corps a breakthrough in the Lebanon war. Rep. McCloskey went on to add "the United States should now move to negotiate with the PLO." Hardly had he finished when, from alongside, Mr. Arafat deflated all this by reintroducing reservations about U.N. Resolution 242. With that, the stalemated diplomatic status quo ante was re-established.

Not, however, before the world media gave Mr. McCloskey's remarks "bulletin" status. That was the story, absent Mr. Arafat's gainsaying, that interrupted an otherwise calm summer Sunday in Washington. At least one network interrupted its regular programs with the presumed breakthrough. The Post foreign desk summoned diplomatic reporter Don Oberdorfer from his day off. Other newspapers, looking to Monday's editions, were responding similarly. Meantime, its native caution showing, the State Department was wisely registering disbelief. Through much of Sunday evening, however, television and radio audiences were being led to believe that the PLO had blinked.

It remains inexplicable that those early reports did not take account of Mr. Arafat's double talk. His comments were concurrent with Mr. McCloskey's and in front of presumably seasoned journalists. All could see that Mr. Arafat was clearly aiming at correcting the impression Mr. McCloskey was rendering. The fact that the PLO chairman said anything less or more than "that's right" should have been the reporters' clue that they were hearing a conflict of views.

Though it was still overplayed, Monday's newspapers had the story in balance. Rep. McCloskey, out of the country and unavailable for comment, appears to have been misled more than to have misunderstood. Mr. Oberdorfer's story illustrates this with the following quote from an "authoratative" PLO official: "When we get a state, we are willling to recognize Israel. Until that process in under way, there will be no unilateral concessions over 242. The PLO will only make this concession for an equal concession: self-determination, i.e., a state, not for the privilege of talking to the U.S.A." There you have it.

Several years ago, Mr. McCloskey wrote an open-hearted and most readable book: "Truth and Untruth: Political Deceit in America." Now he knows something about deceit in the Middle East.