With characteristic attention to detail and protocol, Democratic Party Chairman Paul Kirk, before he publicly urged the AFL-CIO to refrain from endorsing any 1988 presidential candidate until after that year's Democratic Convention, personally informed labor leaders of what he was about to do.

Apparently Kirk, like many in the party he leads, believes the 1984 Democratic presidential candidates' feverish pursuit of pre-primary endorsements hurt both the man who captured them, Walter Mondale and the ticket he led.

But as everyone who has spent longer than a coffee break in a campaign headquarters can testify, public endorsements by prominent individuals and organizations are important and can sometimes provide an underdog candidate with contributions and credibility. (Remember Rep. Andrew Young's 1975 endorsement of the unknown Jimmy Carter, which froze the liberal linebackers that year). The Democrats' problem in 1984 was not the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. It was the public perception of how that labor endorsement and those of feminists and teachers were won that so badly hurt with the voters at large.

This is not to overlook the fact that in the category of Public Affection/Esteem, organized labor currently constitutes no serious threat to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. But much of that negative stereotype of American unions is directly traceable to the past criminal activities of leadership of the Teamsters Union. That's the same Teamsters Union that has twice endorsed Ronald Reagan and the presence of which on the Republican president's dance card has yet to measurably damage Reagan at the polls.

And Paul Kirk makes it clear in conversation that he's speaking of all endorsements, not simply those by unions.

But why, the curious observer might ask, did his endorsement by the teachers' union seemingly hurt the 1984 Democratic nominee while the Republican candidate's blessing by the Teamsters Union cost the latter no support? One answer: American voters are realistic folks who know that powerful special interests, of which labor is only one, hang around national politics. Voters value a president who is worldly and wily enough to deal effectively with those powerful interests. But voters insist upon independence in their president.

A presidential candidate who allows the impression to grow that he has subcontracted any of his independence to any group on any public question in exchange for its endorsement is in big trouble. Too often, Democrats have been seen in recent years not as the champions of public school children but rather as the tribunes for public school teachers, more concerned with the enhancement of organized feminist groups than with the advancement of all American women.

But endorsements do matter in American politics, a lot. They tell us something positive about the individuals and institutions that are willing to risk making important enemies by endorsing a primary candidate. The easy course for a politician is not to endorse anyone, to mumble homilies about "letting the people decide," while viewing the action from 10,000 yards offshore through high-powered binoculars.

The fact that Fritz Mondale was able to persuade so many House Democrats to abandon their safe neutrality and to endorse his candidacy said something good about Mondale -- that a lot of those who had known him longest in the political business were willing to take a chance in his behalf.

But what Democrats, including those who would be president, must understand is that while political followers are expected to have interests of their own, political leaders are different. Political leaders are expected to have ideas of their own that are larger than those of their followers.