We know the sounds of summer. A basketball going cleanly through a hoop is "swish," a nice wet dive is "splash," the frog in the pond croaks "ribbit" and a ball hits the mitt with a "thunk." These are things we know. But what is the sound of Washington throwing in the towel to Ronald Reagan?

Whatever the sound, you could hear it repeatedly in recent weeks. One by one, towels came flying from the hands of Reagan critics. From Atlanta and the convention of the National Women's Political Caucus came a towel from outgoing president Kathy Wilson. Although she is a Republican, Wilson led her organization to an endorsement of Walter Mondale and to implacable hostility toward Reagan. Yet, in her farewell speech, Wilson said the president is notthe anti-feminist he used to be -- and that she once said he was. Some people in the hall, knowing the sound of a towel, booed.

Hardly had Wilson dismounted her platform than Mary Hatwood Futrell mounted hers. The president of the National Education Associa- tion said she had something for the presi- dent -- her hand: "Mr. President, we have dis- agreed with you in the past, and we will undoubtedly disagree with you in the future. But as the Bible tells us, there is a time to rend and a time to heal." And a time to throw in the towel.

What is going on here? The quick answer is: Ronald Reagan. By now it ought to be clear that he is not a mere politician, not even simply a political genius, but a genuine political force. He was, we were told, mortally wounded by Bitburg and would, lame duck that he was, limp to the end of his term -- a genial but irrelevant old man.

Later came the hostage crisis. Critics from the left and (even) from the right volleyed and thundered but Reagan, as in a movie, rode through to even greater popularity. Indeed, it's possible that most people neither approve or disapprove of the way he handled the hostage crisis but simply feel that if Reagan could not have done better, then no one could have done better. This, in politics, is the highest praise of all.

I leave it to history to say whether Reagan's near total dominance of this town and its political agenda is a reflection of the man or the times -- or, as is probably the case, a combination of the two. Whatever Reagan's political gifts, it seems indisputable that the country is tired, bored and somewhat cynical. A harrowing report on childhood poverty is a newspaper story one day, carpeting for the bird cage the next and, soon, is forgotten. Like a jazz-age flapper, we only want a good time.

Over at Democratic Party headquarters, they must be out of towels altogether. A gaggle of governors and other officeholders traipse around the country proclaiming that they are an echo not a choice to Reagan Republicanism. On the Hill, the towels come fast and furious. After making a stand on Nicaragua, the House caved and gave the president most of what he wanted. Ditto the MX and, give or take several billion, the arms budget. Everyone knows that the only way to substantially reduce the deficit is by raising taxes, yet no one thinks that's going to happen as long as Reagan opposes it. Even fiscal reality has thrown in the towel to Ronald Reagan.

Ironically, the biggest and fluffiest towel of all may have come from the old civil rights coalition. It managed to kill the confirmation of William Bradford Reynolds, but not on the issues that mattered to it -- his civil rights record -- but on the somewhat extraneous issue of character. Even so, Reynolds remains in charge of precisely the area in which his insensitivity is documented -- civil rights -- and there, to the general silence of his critics, he says he will remain. Gag me with a towel.

Old-timers may contendthat Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower dominated their eras the way Reagan does his. Maybe. But the fact remains that in what was predicted to be the beginning of the end of the Reagan Era, his political presence is commanding. One by one his political and ideological opponents seem to have concluded that criticizing the president is a task for Sisyphus, the legendary king condemned to roll a heavy rock up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again as it nears the top.

Listen. The sound of the Washington summer is the soft flutter of many towels. It's what Simon and Garfunckel would call the sound of silence.