President Reagan seemed surprised at his press conference last week by the time and attention the press was giving to the affair of the purloined briefing book. He seemed to think the whole thing was something to be taken lightly and asked, ''Is it stolen if someone gives it to you?''
At first Mr. Reagan was not going to do anything about it. By the end of the week it had ceased to be a joke and he found himself forced by public pressure to order a full investigation by the Department of Justice into just how during the 1980 presidential campaign a briefing book prepared for then President Jimmy Carter got into Reagan campaign staff hands.
The affair set me reaching for my copy of Samuel Eliot Morrison's ''History of the American People'' to refresh my memory of the record on dirty tricks and other such matters in American politics.
There has been plenty of corruption and cheating on the record. It falls into two categories: things done to win elections and things done to make money out of having won.
It seems to me, although some may differ, that cheating on winning an election is the greater evil. To win an election by illegal means defeats and subverts the Constitution. To take advantage of a political position (which may have been won fairly and legally) is a theft of public property. It is a crime, but not in the same league with subverting the Constitution.
The worst case in the first category was the stealing of the 1876 election by the Republicans. The Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote decisively. He would have won in the electoral vote over Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes if South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana had been counted for Tilden.
But two sets of electoral votes came in from those three Southern states still then under ''carpetbag rule.'' Congress set up a special commission to decide whether to take the Republican or the Democratic version of the results.
Morrison says: ''There seems no doubt that a deal was made by the Republicans with the Southern Democratic leaders, by virtue of which, in return for their acquiescence in Hayes's election, they promised on his behalf to withdraw the garrison (Union troops) and to wink at nonenforcement of Amendment XV, guaranteeing civil rights to freedmen.''
''The bargain was kept on both sides,'' says Morrison. ''There is no longer any doubt that this election was stolen.''
The effect was to defer by 65 years the implementation of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution which abolished slavery and granted civil rights to the black community.
There is a question whether the worst story of just plain corruption was written during the two administrations of President Ulysses Grant or the abbreviated administration of Warren G. Harding. Neither President Grant nor Harding benefited personally, but some of their closest associates and friends did.
President Grant's private secretary, Gen. Orville E. Babcock, was caught up in a ''Whiskey Ring,'' which defrauded the government of millions in taxes. Persons high in Treasury and the White House were involved in the attempt by Jay Gould and Jim Fisk to corner the gold market. Henry Adams wrote of that affair, ''The worst scandals of the 18th century were relatively harmless by the side of this which smirched executive, judiciary, banks, corporate systems, professions and people, all the great active forces of society.''
Albert B. Fall, secretary of the interior in the Harding cabinet, was convicted and sent to jail for his part in the ''Teapot Dome'' oil scandals. Edwin M. Denby, secretary of the Navy, had to resign over the same affair but managed to avoid jail. Harry Dougherty, attorney general, was dismissed ''for misconduct involving the illegal sale of liquor permits and pardons.'' ''Colonel'' Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, was dismissed for ''taking a cut on the building of hospitals.''
There were charges, and suspicions, of voting ''irregularities'' in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election. Republicans suspected Democrats of rigging votes in Illinois. Democrats accused Republicans of doing the same in Hawaii and Alaska. Paying off faithful supporters after an election dates from Andrew Jackson's days. Watergate was perjury, plus attempts to steal opposition secrets, plus misuse of presidential power.
I leave it to each reader to fit the purloined papers affair into its proper category in the record of American political ''dirty tricks.''