Rank does have its privileges, still, so perhaps we should not begrudge the admiral his delivery of fresh fish, his electric toothbrushes and assorted other "courtesies" -- gifts or gratuities, if you will. Besides, any aide-de-camp to a general or admiral will tell you of much grander services routinely provided for the personal use of the bearers of such great military titles. Or at least they would have when I was in the service. I presume that sort of practice has not gone out of style in the armed forces.

Let us even admit, in the manner of "men of the world," to use an outmoded phrase applicable in this case, that currying favor with the powerful is, and always has been, with us -- and undoubtedly always shall be. So what General Dynamics did for Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the famous "father of the nuclear Navy," certainly breaks no new ground and sets no records in the influence-peddling world of military contractors. When it comes to keeping the brass happy by attentive care and feeding and other comforts, the Rickover/General Dynamics case is not a world-beater either.

It is, though, one of the saddest such episodes in memory. Not because of the flagrance it exposes, nor because of any illegality or precedents it sets. It is sad because it offers such perfect evidence of Lord Acton's famous dictum about how power corrupts -- or what J. William Fulbright, in more modern but no less memorable coinage of expression, called the arrogance of power.

The Rickover case stands as another symbol of the "Say it ain't so, Joe" syndrome of American life: the tarnishing, or cracking, of American icons. It also helps explain why the public views its major public figures with increasing cynicism.

Rickover was back in public view briefly last week. The occasion was the 75th birthday ceremonies of another celebrated sailor, explorer Jacques Cousteau. Rickover, looking remarkably fit for an 85-year-old, was among those in Washington who turned out to pay tribute to Cousteau.

It was also, by coincidence, the day on which Rickover officially replied to the letter of censure filed against him by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. The Navy, you will recall, had documented a long list covering hundreds of favors and whatnot that Rickover had received from General Dynamics over many years. He had been, the Navy said in its rebuke, the "beneficiary of this longstanding pattern and practice of corporate largess" and showed a "lack of appreciation for the proper standards" governing U.S. officials.

All of which Rickover dismissed. No, not dismissed. His official response was far worse than that: He defended the practice. Sure, he kept some of the things -- diamond earrings and a jade pendant for his wife among them -- but as for the rest of the gifts and favors, why, he just sprinkled them around. Get this -- he gave them to presidents, members of Congress and other supporters of the nuclear Navy.

That, of course, supposedly made everything all right.

Now undoubtedly there's nothing new in that practice, either. What makes this whole episode so unfortunate is that Rickover, of all people, has earned a national reputation as standing for the highest principles of devoted, selfless public service. He's the guy a president of the United States celebrated publicly as having been his inspiration, his model for the very best in public standards, the person whose example even provided Jimmy Carter the title for that famous little book of a few years past, "Why Not the Best?"

Here's how Carter described Rickover's impact on him and on his career:

"I had applied for the nuclear submarine program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job. It was the first time I met Admiral Rickover, and we sat in a larger room by ourselves for more than two hours, and he let me choose any subjects I wished to discuss. Very carefully, I chose those about which I knew most at the time -- current events, seamanship, music, literature, naval tactics, electronics, gunnery -- and he began to ask me a series of questions of increasing difficulty. In each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject I had chosen.

"He always looked right into my eyes, and he never smiled. I was saturated with cold sweat.

"Finally, he asked me a question and I thought I could redeem myself. He said, 'How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?' Since I had completed my sophomore year at Georgia Tech before entering Annapolis as a plebe, I had done very well, and I swelled my chest with pride and answered, 'Sir, I stood 59th in a class of 820!' I sat back to wait for the congratulations -- which never came. Instead, the question: 'Did you do your best?' I started to say, 'Yes, sir,' but I remembered who this was, and recalled several of the many times at the Academy when I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons, strategy, and so forth. I was just human. I finally gulped and said, 'No, sir, I didn't always do my best.'

"He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget -- or to answer. He said, 'Why not?' I sat there for a while, shaken, and then slowly left the room."

That was a touching and impressive tribute. I have no doubt Rickover was all the things Carter said of him in those days: "unbelievably hard-working and competent, and he demanded total dedication from his subordinates." He served his country splendidly.

Neither is there reason to doubt Rickover's statement of last week defending his integrity in another sense. " . . . The record will show," he said, "that I have been consistently tougher on defense contractors than any government official at any time."

In saying that, Admiral Rickover demonstrates that he has no understanding of why his behavior and personal practices of years standing have damaged the very thing he professed to represent, the idea of excellence in public service. He wasn't the best. He was, it turns out, merely one of the boys -- one of the "they-all-do-it" and "do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do" boys, that is.

Saddest of all to say, he doesn't seem to understand the difference. Or even why it makes a difference.