IT IS HARD for us to imagine anyone Ronald Reagan would nominate for attorney general who would be our idea of the right person for the job. Edwin Meese III is no exception: his outlook and enthusiasms and record on some of the most important issues an attorney general must deal with seem to us deeply wrong or wanting in crucial respects. But we believe Mr. Meese's view of those issues is a faithful reflection of the president's, and that last fall's election indicated a strong voter preference for their approach -- not in every detail, perhaps, but surely in broad outline. These views, while antithetical to our own and those of many like us, fall well within the boundaries of conventional American political thought and legal argument. They are not on their face grounds for rejecting a president's nominee for attorney general.

Neither, in our opinion, are the failures of propriety and judgment that have been the subject of so much inquiry and controversy over the past 10 months. What has finally been established concerning Mr. Meese's personal conduct, though disturbing, does not seem to us to rise to the status of grounds for the first Senate rejection of a presidential Cabinet nominee since 1959.

First, for the ethical questions. If there were an absolute standard for judging the behavior of our officials or even a higher relative one, it might be different. For Mr. Meese's lackadaisical attitude toward the implications of some of his personal dealings in the past is not exactly what you would call a job qualification, even though he has pledged (under pressure) to be much more attentive to the implications of his actions in the future. But in relation to what has been countenanced and winked at in the department over the decades -- and not just in the Mitchell-Kleindienst criminal years, either -- and in relation to the shamefully easy virtue of the Congress that is judging him, it would be an act of towering hypocrisy to reject Mr. Meese on these grounds.

By all means, let us have higher standards. We believe the office of attorney general especially should be held by one above reproach. So let us have standards that would make it self-evident that lapses such as those of which Mr. Meese is guilty fall outside the realm of acceptable official behavior. But let us not start (and finish) this process with Mr. Meese. His insensitivity to the conflict between his private interests and his public responsibilities is only a faint approximation of what is a widespread condition on much of the Hill. A Congress whose members are connoisseurs of the bought-and-paid-for vote and the acquisition of special privilege and patronage, having also pretty well invented the art of extracting special treatment from reserve units in which they serve, needs to set some restrictions of its own if its censorious approach to Mr. Meese on these counts is to be taken seriously. We do not say that all those opposing Mr. Meese are guilty of these things, only that these things, in generally far worse manifestations than the Meese case provides, are epidemic and unchallenged on Capitol Hill.

Noting this element of hypocrisy in some of the opposition to Mr. Meese's confirmation, we also note that it is false, as some of Mr. Meese's conservative defenders are trying to pretend, that it represents the sum total of the opposition to him on ethical grounds. Mr. Meese has not simply been the victim of some liberal flummery in which specious ethical issues are raised as a cover for political distaste. Yes, there is some of that. But more importantly, across the country, before the independent counsel's inquiry and after, an astonishing number of the most conservative editorial grumps in the land have been saying No, resoundingly, to Mr. Meese. It is because they see in his failings precisely that element of easy dealing and special breaks that they sense -- rightly -- infuses far too much of our public life. We think they are wrong to call for Mr. Meese's rejection as a result, given the facts of his case. But we think their appraisal of the character of much of public life is right. It is possible, despite what some of Mr. Meese's sponsors are arguing, for liberals and conservatives to be dismayed by the attitude Mr. Meese showed in his disputed transactions, genuinely and not as a cover for some unacknowledged political purpose.

Mr. Meese, it is sometimes forgotten, got into the position he is in precisely because he has been a public servant through most of his career and is not a wealthy man. There is no evidence that he ever had an instinct for self-enrichment along the way. What then accounts for the exceptional, unforgiving anger that Mr. Meese's conduct has inspired? It is this: People are being asked to extend to him a degree of understanding and fellow-feeling and a presumption of decent intention that his administration in general, and on a couple of notable occasions Mr. Meese in particular, have been unable to extend to others in much greater hardship and for whose conduct there was at least as much extenuating circumstance. From the time of the first revelations concerning his personal finances, we have been asked to think about his misfortunes and his methods of dealing with them in a more generous way than the Reagan administration wants us to think about the nation's soup-kitchen clientele. Is he being punished for this? Yes.

Sometimes it is complained that Mr. Meese is a "law-and-order" man, as if this were not appropriate in a would-be attorney general. But the problem is not his passion for law and order; it is the evident absence of other passions -- those concerning racial discrimination, victimization of socety's down and out, inequity and injustice in the way the law treats the poor -- all matters that should be very much on an attorney general's mind. As with the disquiet caused by his personal transactions, Mr. Meese has yet to reveal an imagination equal to understanding these things, feeling them, learning from them. Perhaps he will.

We feel today as we felt several years back urging the Senate not to reject the nomination of Clement Haynsworth for the Supreme Court. He was not the man we wished to see on the Supreme Court. But we did not think the Senate had made the case for rejecting him. We think the Senate Judiciary Committee should send the Meese nomination to the floor.