Urbana, Ill. — The youngish Urbana lawyer put the question directly: ''Why don't you folks from Washington come out here more often, so that you can find out what the real people are thinking?'' The question was echoed in nods of approval from the small group of businessmen enjoying a morning break at a cafe in the handsome downtown shopping mall.
A lot of people ''out there'' (as those in the hinterlands are often referred to in Washington) are increasingly concerned that Washington, its public servants, and the news media live in something approaching a different country. They are particularly put off by what they hear from TV commentators, believing that the Washington view too often has a special, detached slant stemming from ignorance as much as bias. And they seem convinced that, if Washingtonians took a closer look at the general public's point of view, they would form more knowledgeable, less subjective pictures of what is going on - and what the American people are thinking.
One lesson which those with the ''pompous Potomac'' point of view could learn from places like Urbana and its twin city, Champaign, is that they ''aren't as all-fired important as they think they are,'' as one local observer put it.
There is, however, a respect for the presidency in small-community and rural America that isn't readily visible in Washington circles. And at the moment there is a general feeling of good will for the President.
In these parts, of course, there was only one ''great'' President. This is the land of Lincoln. Some of the pioneers who settled here moved in through the Cumberland Gap, just as Lincoln's family had. Lincoln came to the Urbana Court House when he was riding the circuit. Here he often swapped stories with some of the local wits.
But with Lincoln as their standard of excellence, it is little wonder that people here find few public figures that impress them.
Actually, as Washingtonians do forget, the folks around the country really do not think from morning to night about what is going on in the nation's capital - certainly not the way that those in Washington do. Right now, for example, local citizens here are involved in marking the county's sesquicentennial. This area's beginnings go back to the 1830s when Tocqueville was writing about early America and Americans.
News of this celebration will doubtless not go much beyond Champaign County boundaries. And if it somehow gets to Washington, the ''ho-hum'' from Washing-tonians will be predictable.
But the history of this little part of the world where is rich in happenings and achievements. There is Lincoln's presence, which still hovers here. Then there is the county itself, which has some of the most productive farmland in the world.
There is also the University of Illinois which sits in the middle of the Twin Cities. Six graduates are Nobel Prize winners; one faculty member has won two Nobel Prizes. The university boasts the third largest university library in the nation. Also the university is third among all US universities in the number of graduates who earn doctoral degrees. One learns these statistics when attending a celebration, such as the one held here.
At the grass-roots the complaint is often heard that the news out of Washington is almost always negative. ''Why not some good news?'' people ask. Folk around here could argue that their sesquicentennial should make the evening TV show - at least for a ''mention.'' They could argue that it is indeed ''good news''- that they are marking something of more than just local interest, something to reminder everyone across the land that, despite reverses here and there, the American success story is continuing.