The price of isolation for vacationers in our business is what you have to plow through on your return: old newspapers, magazines, press releases and transcripts of TV talk shows. The reward is the odd chance of mining some small nugget of imperishable Truth.

This year's favorite find was a verbatim record of what must have been a beautiful event--"This Week With David Brinkley," featuring five former leaders of the free world: Gerald Ford of the United States, President Val,ery Giscard d'Estaing of France, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, Prime Minister James Callaghan of Britain, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser of Australia. Pressure free, they were assembled in a sylvan setting at the edge of a swift- running Colorado creek. Questions plumbed the role of U.S. power, the state of the Western alliance, the threat of nuclear war, the world economy.

But the answers ran no deeper than the creek. No less than their successors in office were these battle-seasoned veterans of high-stakes politics and policy-making thinking unthinkable thoughts. The Truth: you can take the political leader out of the office, but you can't take the office, with all its crimping inhibitions on creativity, out of the political leader.

So maybe you knew that already, and knew also that when former high officeholders do come up with an occasional bold innovation, it is almost invariably something they could have as easily offered while in office--if they had thought that, as a practical matter, it would work.

But this sideline summit meeting did say something about the odds on today's players finding answers to the truly tough question of how to deal with nuclear proliferation; or with the effective management of a radically transformed Atlantic alliance; or with the bedeviling impact on Western cohesion of subjecting political leaders and their policies to the whim of public opinion at regular intervals.

None of the foreigners argued with Schmidt's complaint about American "volatility." He had worked with four American presidents and the last two in particular had "seemed to turn around basic lines of American strategy." Callaghan, too, wanted more "continuity" from Washington. Nobody asked the question that the current condition of all five men would seem to invite: what is so special about American discontinuity?

The United States, the foreigners agreed, must be a strong leader--but not so strong as to act without the most careful consultation with its allies; "cooperation" was Giscard's way of putting it. Callaghan saw an urgent need for an agreement "between the major powers of the (free) world" on how to "manage" problems like Libya's threat to Chad--or Central America. He thought it incredible that "U.S. eyes should be fixed with such intensity upon those five small Central American republics when we are talking about these other issues."

Nobody thought to ask him about Britain's bipartisan fixation with the Falklands a while ago, at some expense to its readiness to meet alliance obligations. But Fraser did ask him how he would manage Col. Qaddafi, and Callaghan was honest: "I don't know."

Ford's defense of the United States was no less familiar than the European complaints. He wanted "cooperation" of a different sort from America's allies. Suggesting that the United States could get "spread so thinly that we become ineffective," he politely implied that the West's security burden needed to be more equitably shared.

This brought on the only really brisk exchange. If nuclear warfare is becoming so morally dubious as to be highly unreliable as a deterrent, the question was, could the Western countries afford the alternative of increased reliance on conventional forces? Neatly, Giscard and Schmidt turned the answer away from money to manpower: most Europeans subject their young men to conscription; the United States does not.

Schmidt confidently claimed that the 15 months' or more training required of West Germany's draft-eligibles would enable his country to muster 1.3 million soldiers within seven days--"much more than the United States can ever hope to field." Ford conceded that U.S. military manpower reserve is not what it ought to be, but that we would have the problem in hand within "the next several years."

If you sense a stuck needle, you've got it right: the allies and the United States each accusing the other of not doing enough; the Europeans complaining that American politics precludes steady leadership for the long haul; everybody agreeing that nuclear proliferation is bad (without saying how to stop it).

The allies must agree on priorities and work out common solutions in harmony, they insisted. But nobody had a clue about how, collectively, they could respond to Callaghan's rallying cry: "We've got to try and manage the world.""