White House spokesman Larry Speakes yesterday offered reporters a lighthearted insight into how the government manages the news. Asked how the administration would respond to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's televised address about the Chernobyl accident, Speakes said, "It depends on how we rate it on a scale of one to 10."

"If it's something big," Speakes went on, "we'd come out here and say it.

"If it's something really big, the president would say it. I don't think it could ever be that big.

"If it was semi-big, I'd come out and say something.

"If it was teeny-tiny, we'd give out a piece of paper.

"And if it was teeny-tinier than that, we'd let the State Department do it."

Reporters, familiar with the occasional rivalry between the White House and State Department staffs, roared with laughter. Deputy press secretary Edward P. Djerejian, a State Department veteran, covered his face with his hands.

"If it's bad news," Speakes continued, "we'd let the Interior Department do it."

Ultimately, the White House chose to issue a written statement about Gorbachev's speech. Higher Intelligence . . .

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday approved, 11 to 1, the nomination of Morton I. Abramowitz as assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. Abramowitz has been running the Department's intelligence bureau for more than a year; his nomination was a result of a decision to upgrade the position.

Abramowitz's confirmation therefore seemed secure until he tangled at hearings with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) over the question of whether the newly created slot would be a policymaking position. Abramowitz said no, and refused on those grounds to answer one of Helms' questions.

Sources say that the State Department has tried hard to "clarify" Abramowitz's role, but apparently to no avail: It was Helms who cast the single vote against the appointment yesterday, by proxy. Plain Speaking . . .

Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who appeared yesterday before the Overseas Writers' Club, responded vehemently to a question about leaks of classified information: "Our basic problem is that we've lost all sense of discipline -- all sense of discipline. It didn't used to be that way . . . . There used to be a lot more restraint on the part of the press in what they would print. And as far as our government's concerned, it's a gusher. It's disgusting, the way the stuff leaks out. We've got to find the people who are doing it and fire them." Deathless Rhetoric . . .

Few creatures have risen from the deathbed as often as tax revision, the subject of a bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee last week. It was declared near death at least four times in the House, only to win passage in December. It was pronounced terminally ill almost daily this spring in the Finance Committee -- until it passed unanimously on May 7.

Suddenly the word on the street has reversed itself. The bill is now said to be immortal -- and has inspired new, occasionally off-color flights of imagery among lobbyists. "This bill has a half-life somewhere between Claude Pepper [85] and cheap uranium," said Wayne Thevenot, president of the National Realty Committee. And Ken Simonson of the American Trucking Associations observed, "This bill has more lives than Lazarus' cat." True Believers? . . .

Two new regional administrators have been named to the Small Business Administration -- John. F. Moffitt to the Boston region and Charles Freeman to the New York slot.

Acting administrator Charles L. Heatherly fired six of the eight regional administrators the week he took over at SBA (the Boston vacancy came about that way; the New York slot had been vacant), and promised to appoint administrators who could "aggressively support" the president's goals for SBA -- in particular, his proposal to eliminate it.

The release about Moffitt, formerly a special assistant in the Boston SBA office, praises "his commitment to the president's goal of reducing the federal deficit." And the release about Freeman, who comes from the New York regional office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, lauds "his desire to help the president's goal of reducing the massive federal deficit."