Remember the truly needy? Remember also the "safety net" that would catch them before they hit bottom? Now we know who the truly needy are and what's been caught in the safety net. It's Mike Deaver and a BMW.

Deaver, a White House aide, went to Germany to advance a presidential trip and there confronted BMW executives, who apparently know a needy man when they see one. Accordingly, they offered Deaver an expensive BMW motor car, quickly adding the comforting word dear to us all: "Discount." In the end, Deaver got his car for something like 25 percent off.

Naturally, White House counsel Fred Fielding cleared Deaver of anything illegal, improper, immoral or unnatural -- and then just as quickly drafted new regulations forbidding anyone from doing the same.

Unlike Deave, who is clearly needy, other White House aides might be suspected of trading their official position for a discount. It's as if it never occurred to BMW that the man they were helping might someday be able to help them. As for Deaver, his idea of appearances is apparently the figure he cuts in a fancy car, not the way he conducts himself in office.

Deaver, about to depart the White House, is a point of departure himself -- as good a place as any to understand that while government may not yet have adopted the efficiency of business, it sure has adopted its ethics. Here is Deaver, a presidential aide of the highest order, simply accepting a favor from a car manufacturer. If you wonder why he gets the discount and you don't, ask yourself if you're in any position to do BMW any good. It would be surprising if BMW did not ask itself that question. Certainly, the car itself is evidence the answer was, as they say in Bavaria, "Ja."

What distinguishes the Reagan administration from its predecessor is not its general record of honesty -- not what the Democrats in the campaign called "the sleaze factor" -- but rather its sense of entitlement. Government service is seen as something akin to doing windows and so there must be some reward for it -- something other than just doing good by the people.

Thus, CIA Director William Casey was stunned when he was criticized for dealing in oil stocks even though oil is something the intelligence community keeps an eye on. When people said it didn't look right, it was as if they had lapsed into tongues. In the same vein, you could not help thinking that Ed Meese, maybe a 6 on an ethical scale of 10, never understood that it did not look right for him to take favors that you and I are not going to get. All the banks I deal with seem to want their loans repaid.

This sense of entitlement trickles down to the lower levels of government as well. George Sawyer, the assistant secretary of the Navy for shipbuilding, went from regulating General Dynamics to working for them, and only the press seemed to care. John E. Chapoton went directly from working on tax policy at Treasury to working on tax policy for a law firm. He reportedly earned an additional $400,000 or so a year but not much criticism. It is as if he deserved everthing he eventually got.

In fact, if it were not for some publicized wife beating, the now notori- ous John Fedders would be the personification of Reagan-era ethics. He took a government post -- enforcement chief at the Securities and Exchange Comission -- not to serve the public but eventually to make more money. A $165,000-a-year lawyer in private practice, he told friends he was willing to take a cut to $59,500 at the SEC because when he returned to private business, he would be worth $400,000 a year. In the meantime, he secured a $150,000 line of credit, in effect, putting up his future as collateral. Understandably, the administration got upset about his wife-beating; his cynical use of government service seemed to bother no one.

These, then, are the new needy. Their sense of entitlement would put a welfare queen to shame and make rich kids on college loans feel they've taken poverty vows. You want a loan, take a loan. You want a job from a company you're regulating, take the job. You want a car at discount, take the car. You're entitled -- even if you say so yourself. In this administration, there is no higher authority.