Yesterday, Michael Deaver, the president's former White House aide, requested that the Justice Department appoint an independent counsel (formerly known as "special prosecutor") to investigate allegations that he has broken the law. It is a measure of the twisted condition of our ethical standards in Washington these days that this action was immediately -- and not wholly without justification -- seen as an effort by Mr. Deaver to beat the rap.

The rap in question has several parts. First there are the charges that Mr. Deaver violated federal statutes that prohibit officials who leave government from lobbying their former agencies for one year after leaving government -- longer if their involvement was personal and substantial. There are also allegations that Mr. Deaver, before he left the White House, did some lobbying in his own professional behalf, making public arrangements from which he would subsequently personally prosper. Presumably it is these questions that an independent counsel will look into, if one is named. One must assume that Mr. Deaver believes he will be acquitted of the charges -- and, thus, freed of the opprobrium that has suddenly attached to him, rescued from the thundering herd that is currently on his trail.

Don't get us wrong. We think the questions of potential law violation that have been raised are important and should be formally disposed of, not least because there has been such a high degree of murk surrounding the identity of some of Mr. Deaver's accusers and even some of the accusations themselves. But addressing the legal questions will not begin to get at what Mr. Deaver really stands accused of: brazenly and shamelessly exploiting his White House service and residual White House connection for the purpose of making money -- big -- money.

This is what the Deaver affair is about. And when you have made allowance for the number of old political antagonists who are anonymously contributing to his woes and for the fact that Mr. Deaver is not exactly a pioneer in this ield and that he is being pelleted most ferociously from an awful lot of glass houses, you still come back to this charge: exploitation, verging on abuse, of his role in government and his connection with the first family.

In an age where former Cabinet officers rush to settle scores and make a mint with their memoirs, in which former top people from State and from Congress and from practically everywhere else become spectacularly well-paid consultants to foreign governments, and in which sitting members of Congress daily exchange influence for vast sums of reelection money, a little reticence on the subject of trading on one's government service and connections might have been in order. Yet there is a kind of poetic justice to the fact that of reticence there is practically none, since Mr. Deaver's offenses have been very much in the hungry, unrestrained, amoral spirit of the times. And they are hardly mitigated by the fact that so many pots are calling the kettle black.

He has been especially singleminded and especially successful in converting an aura of access and power into hard cash. In doing so he has collaterally done some damage to the sources of his good fortune -- the president and Mrs. Reagan. The commercialization of the presidency by those who are close to it is unseemly and unattractive. Mr. Deaver, now under attack, is being made an example. By his immoderation he invited the attack. Our question is whether critical scrutiny will go on from there, whether it will be extended to so many others who contribute to and profit from the sunken standards of the day.