It was entirely appropriate that the First Citizen of the country should participate in events surrounding the first observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. It also was fitting that he should have told students at the King Elementary School here that the slain civil rights leader was "a great man."

The decent thing would have been to add, "I didn't always think so."

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was the only public figure to comment on the "hypocrisy" of the president's remarks last week. He observed that Ronald Reagan "never supported a movement Dr. King stood for in life."

Other blacks let it go. Maybe they were content to revel in the fact that in the last week Americans could not turn on their television sets or radios without hearing King's compelling voice telling of his "dream" or someone reading the noble "Letter from Birmingham Jail." White politicians have long since given up on pointing out the president's imprecisions, contradictions and misstatements, for which other public men, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) noted ruefully, "would get their heads taken off." A 70 percent public approval rating has effectively silenced what the public regards as "petty criticism" of a nice man.

King, of course, never troubled to answer detractors in high places. He carried his philosophy of nonviolence over into his rhetoric, which was singularly free of self-pity. He was a dreamer, but he was without illusions, especially about presidents.

The Kennedys were opposed to the great march on Washington in August 1963. King went ahead with it. When he criticized the Vietnam war, he incurred the enmity of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had done as much for civil rights as any of his predecessors. King persisted in pointing out the injustice and only much later complained that Johnson had jammed his lines with all the other black ministers in the country.

But Jackson's point about "hypocrisy" is well-taken.

When King was being beaten and jailed for his views -- and his effectiveness -- he got not a single encouraging word from Reagan, who told California voters that he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor was Reagan a champion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the single most transforming piece of civil rights legislation that King marched onto the books.

In fact, as president, when the renewal of the Voting Rights Act came due, Reagan tried to weaken it, declaring that examples of its violation required proof of the "intent" of the authorities to deprive citizens of their right to vote.

Reagan's antipathy toward King did not end in 1968 with King's assassination. The president was vehemently opposed to the King national holiday. And in one of the most reprehensible uses of the "bully pulpit" of the White House, he cast aspersions on King's loyalty and patriotism.

On Oct. 19, 1983, at one of his infrequent news conferences, Reagan was asked about North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms' charges that King was at least a fellow-traveler.

Reagan's reply was snide and airy: "We'll know in about 35 years, won't we?"

He defended Helms as someone zealously guarding the national calendar from intrusion by someone whose FBI records cannot yet be opened because of an agreement between the family and the government.

Reagan made a single, unadorned reference to King's "accomplishments" and "what he meant in a stormy period in our history."

One of Reagan's earliest acts as president was to seek tax-exempt status for a segregated southern school. He quit in his efforts to subvert the Voting Rights Act only after Senate GOP leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) swamped him in Republican votes.

Today, of course, his attorney general, Edwin Meese III, is attempting to roll back affirmative action. Meese puts his claims on the "original intent" of the founders. The founders' intent, at the time of the writing of the Constitution, was to preserve slavery, so it is blindingly irrelevant. Reagan babbles happily about a "colorblind society."

Reagan apologized to Coretta Scott King for smearing her husband. But he never apologized to the rest of us. He has joined the King festivities as if he had been cheering from the sidelines all along.

He has many gifts as a politician, not the least of which is shamelessness. It is good to hear him say, at last, that King was "a great man." He would be a bigger man himself if he admitted he was late in reaching that universal judgment.