In Paul G. Kirk Jr. the Democrats have found themselves a national chairman better than they know -- and maybe better than they deserve. If character and ability count for anything in the world of politics, and I am naive enough to think they do, then the Democratic Party is in good hands.

I say this confidently, having watched and dealt with Kirk for about 15 years. And I say it emphatically, because Kirk's case illustrates the bind we often find ourselves in as reporters in trying to bridge the gap from the facts to the truth.

The facts about Paul Kirk, as reported in the stories about his election last week as the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, are simple: He is a 47-year-old native of Massachusetts, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, who worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as chief of staff for eight years and later took a leave from his Washington law practice to direct Kennedy's bid for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

In the contest for the party chairmanship, Kirk was the choice of the leaders of the AFL-CIO, who delivered about one-fifth of his total votes and most of his margin of victory in the fight with former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford.

To describe Kirk, therefore, as a Kennedy- labor Democrat, as all the stories did, is accurate. But it misses the main point, which is that he is a man whose integrity and ability make him exceptional -- even in the eyes of those who have most often opposed him.

Former Democratic National chairman Robert S. Strauss is one of those people. "In 1980," he recalled the other day, "he (Kirk) spoke for the Kennedy campaign, and I was the chairman of the (Jimmy) Carter campaign. The tensions between the two groups were rather severe, but I could always talk with Paul. Our relationship, instead of just surviving, thrived. He always kept his word. . . ."

Strauss said that he could sympathize with Kirk this week, because "when I came in as national chairman (in 1972), my reputation was that I was a very conservative Texas Democrat, a John Connally-Lyndon Johnson man, who somehow had financial ties with some big labor leaders.

"The truth of the matter was that I wasn't owned by Connally, Johnson or labor, but it took me a while to prove it. Now, I'm aware that some people say that Kirk's election is bad for the Democratic Party, because it sends a signal that labor and Kennedy have taken over. It's not true.

"To begin with," Strauss said, "Kirk is a centrist in his thinking. He can represent and do political business in the South and West just as well as in the Midwest and the East. He's a man of integrity and honor, and when you know him at all, that is what comes through.

"I have never been on the same side as Paul in the disputes within the party, but I tell you that at the end of a year, he will be seen as his own person, a man who does his homework, keeps his word, and is on the way to rebuilding the party."

As a reporter, I would just add that my experience confirms every point of that judgment. In the Kennedy entourage, which was often arrogant, sometimes secretive and always protective, Kirk stood out as a man who was consistent, stable, reliable and reasonable -- and who balanced his sense of personal and political loyalty to the senator with a view of the world larger than the advancement of one individual's ambitions.

He will need all those qualities -- and some luck -- in his new job, for he faces daunting challenges. Despite his denials, he is viewed as an agent of Lane Kirkland or Ted Kennedy by many in the party. His election left bruised feelings among key fund-raisers, governors and some black leaders. Every move he makes, every appointment he announces, will be scrutinized for hidden motives.

And that is why it will come down to something we journalists have trouble defining or articulating -- a question of character.

In his first speech as chairman, Kirk told the national committee members, "You have honored me today with your confidence. . . . I ask you also for your trust. . . . Without mutual trust, each of us will be tempted to make unreasonable demands on one another -- to protect our particular cause or to advance our own special agenda. If we let that happen, we will be viewed as nothing more than a collection of narrow groups looking inward in conflict and dividing ourselves in a struggle for scraps of a declining political party. Thankfully, we have another choice."

In choosing Kirk, the Democrats have given themselves another chance, just as the selection of Ray C. Bliss in 1965 and Bill Brock in 1977 gave Republicans a chance to recover from their electio defeats in the previous years. When they took over, those two men were viewed with skepticism by many in the GOP. But they set an example of independence, hard work and, yes, character that lifted the spirits of their party and restored its political credibility.

Paul Kirk has the opportunity -- and ability -- to do that same thing for the Democrats.