When he was a candidate for president, Ronald Reagan frequently promised with some fanfare that his administration would reduce "waste, fraud and abuse" in government and turn back to the private sector jobs that can be more efficiently performed by commercial enterprise.

But there were no bugles blowing last week when the president quietly ordered the inspector general of the Department of Defense to investigate Navy bidding procedures that White House officials concede have made a mockery of candidate Reagan's promise.

Underlying the unheralded order for the investigation, issued in a one-paragraph statement by the Office of Management and Budget, were a series of explosive internal memos. These memos, which have become the basis for a lawsuit charging that bids were rigged to show that the Navy can operate tankers more cheaply than private companies, have prodded the White House into action.

"The message should have been quite clear to the Navy some time ago," said White House assistant for Cabinet affairs Craig Fuller, who last week recommended the investigation by the inspector general.

The protracted process, of general interest only to the Navy and the maritime unions and companies, provides an instructive glimpse of the president's detachment from the business of government. Administration officials acknowledge that he has been completely distanced both from the Navy's actions and from what his staff was doing.

Though newspapers carried stories about the lawsuit, Reagan didn't read them. He became aware of what was happening only when he was briefed on the suit. Then, say officials, he became "upset" at what had happened.

In the meantime, the assistant secretary of the Navy who concluded that the private companies couldn't do the job as efficiently as the Military Sealift Command has left the government--for a private sector job with General Dynamics Corp. So far, that's about all the private sector has received from the Reagan administration on this issue.

The statistics came fast and furiously from Reagan at last week's "mini-press conference," but they didn't come accurately. First, the president erred against his interests by saying there were 1.2 million more people employed than there were last December. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the correct figure is 1.7 million. Then he more than balanced it by making a couple of errors that minimized the impact of unemployment.

"Seventy percent of the unemployed today have been unemployed seven weeks or less," he said. (The BLS says the seasonally adjusted figure is 32.8 percent. The unadjusted figure, which Reagan sometimes prefers, is 47 percent.) "Thirty percent of the unemployed today are newcomers to the job market seeking their first employment." (The BLS says the correct adjusted figure is 12.9 percent.) "And if you want another rather hard-to-imagine figure, if you take the total weeks of unemployment, more than half of them were accounted for by only 3.5 percent of the unemployed." (The BLS says Reagan got this statistic right, but nobody's perfect.)

President Reagan's decision to skip the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention produced an angry letter to the White House from the VFW's national commander, James Currieo, who pointed out that the VFW is currently studying whether to provide financial aid to the rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government. The VFW backed Reagan in 1980, the first time the organization supported a presidential candidate.

White House insiders say the VFW convention couldn't be scheduled because Nancy Reagan insists that her husband needs "ranch time" at Santa Barbara. But a White House luncheon with VFW officials is in the works in an effort to repair the damage.

Quotation of the Week: (By former Democratic national chairman Robert S. Strauss, after being named to the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America) "A president who could build the kind of consensus we need in this country wouldn't need all these commissions."

The way in which the appointment of Henry A. Kissinger to head the Central American commission dribbled out of the White House opened old wounds between the followers of national security affairs adviser William P. Clark and those of White House chief of staff James A. Baker III.

Presidential assistant Richard G. Darman was particularly exercised during last Monday's staff meeting over the withholding of information from legislative liasion Kenneth Duberstein, who heard about the appointment from Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), who heard about it from a Democrat, Sen. Henry M. Jackson (Wash.). In Darman's view, this was carrying bipartisanship just a bit too far.

The Kissinger appointment also had the odd twist of being advocated by the conservative Clark, in the face of right-wing opposition, and being viewed skeptically by some of the pragmatists, one of whom observed, "Henry's a confrontationist, rather than a consensus builder."

But the official line is that everyone's for Kissinger in a big way.

Reaganism of the Week: (At the Captive Nations Observance ceremony last Tuesday, where Reagan was announced after arriving eight minutes late): "You know, I have to apologize for keeping you waiting. And I always wonder if there isn't some way, without making it sound that way, if in that announcement they couldn't say, 'the late president of the United States.' "