Washington — If a blue-ribbon presidential commission on Truth in Washington were appointed with Diogenes, Pontius Pilate, and Honest Abe Lincoln as co-chairmen, even they would have a tough time investigating the subject.
Absolute truth appears to be as rare in Washington as green roses and just as prickly a subject, according to a provocative new book by Stephen Hess. ''The Government/Press Connection'' has just been published by the Brookings Institution, where Mr. Hess is a senior fellow in the governmental studies program. It is his second book on this theme. He earlier wrote ''The Washington Reporters.''
''For all press secretaries the crux of ethical conduct is lying,'' he asserts.
''Spokesmen are expected to tell the truth - it is US government policy,'' he continues, explaining that although spokesmen prefer to do that for many reasons , it sometimes conflicts with their expected support of the administration and may require withholding full information. ''Reporters understand these conditions, and the convention of the government/press connection permits less than full candor. Acceptability, however, depends on the kind of lie and its extent. On a scale of decreasing acceptability to reporters, the types would be the honest lie, the inadvertent lie, the half-truth, and the lie.''
Hess chewed over the question of what is truth with reporters at a recent Brookings luncheon. He was asked if press secretaries generally had an ethical ''bottom line,'' a point where if they were misled or given false information themselves, they would resign.
''I don't think people go into jobs like that. I mean, they may be pushed to the wall and have to make that decision for themselves, as Les Janka made it one way (White House press aide Janka resigned after the Grenada invasion),'' Hess said. ''Others have made it the other way. But no, it's not something that I saw. It wasn't part of the standard contract. ... Certainly the other side of it was that if they told misinformation to a reporter, they were going to lose their credibility and that word was going to get out. There was that relationship that they very clearly understood. And I think all reporters understood, too. We have long memories, we remember, 'That person was slightly dishonest.' ''
Most government press secretaries and press officers are honorable people, Hess says. But sometimes crises make it extremely difficult to tell the truth and maintain national security. President Kennedy disappeared from public view over what was first described by his press office as a mild illness but later turned out to be the Cuban missile standoff. There is the category of inadvertent lie, like the Watergate deceptions voiced by Ron Ziegler because top officials in the Nixon administration had not told him the truth. In the category of ''honest lie,'' says Hess, is Jody Powell's admission that he had not told the truth in order to protect the Iranian hostage mission.
To the newspaper reader or TV viewer trying to peer through to the truth about what goes on in government, it sometimes looks as though a movie fog machine obscures all but the vague outlines. The patriot who says, ''My country right or wrong,'' never read a government agency press release written to obfuscate a mistake or attended a briefing engineered to keep even the most minimal information from the press and therefore from the public. Some press releases and briefings may make it impossible for any but the most informed patriot to tell what is right or wrong; they reveal only what the position of the administration in power is.
All of which for reporters is something of a sport in the smiling, sometimes adversarial relationship between the press and press officers. It is a sport somewhere between bullfighting and ballet, depending on which government press office you are discussing. Mr. Hess says White House briefings are like a fraternity party; State Department briefings are like delicate negotiations between two alien countries (press and state); and Pentagon briefings are more like combat. Over lunch he confided that the White House strategy is simply ''feed the bears,'' while the State Department is ''a real damage-limitation operation,'' and at the Pentagon ''it's educating the press, it's selling the press.''
To cover those who cover the government spokesmen, Hess spent a year, 1981-82 , as an accredited observer of the media-press office jousts in five areas: the White House, State Department, Pentagon, Department of Transportation, and the Food and Drug Administration. He runs the numbers by in his book. Those who dispense information for the government are enough to populate a modest town, more than 5,000 people: 2,900 federal public-information specialists and 2,178 writer-editors at the last US head count in 1980.
Estimates that they spend between $1 billion and $2.5 billion a year for everything from press releases to filmmaking are inflated, Hess says. Since there are, he estimates, 1,250 reporters covering national government, the coverees outnumber by almost 5 to 1 those covering them.
His assessment, after a year of study, is that press officers are ''individually more competent than the reputation of their occupation.'' He gives particularly high marks to the Pentagon press office, which dispenses information ''wholesale,'' compared with the ''retail'' operation at State. And Pentagon military press officers are among the best of all, he says, their high rank (often colonels) twinned with more extensive graduate degrees. Press officers also are orphans of the storm with both the agencies they serve and the media they feed: A career press officer, Hess says, is a hybrid, ''a semi-bureaucrat/semi-reporter, in the bureaucracy but not truly of it, tainted by association with the press, yet not of the press.''
There is one area Hess has touched on only lightly in his vivid and incisive book, which includes the inside story on everything from the politics of leaks to the intrigue of clipping services.
That area is the Living Theater of press conferences. Some of them are pedestrian, but there have been moments: an exasperated Hodding Carter III silencing a State Department press corps heckler by lobbing a rubber chicken at him, or warning a reporter off on a bad lead, Mississippi style, that ''that dog don't hunt''; Jody Powell honing the fine edge of his White House spokesman's sarcasm on a reporter who doubted CIA oil-shipment figures; Ron Ziegler looking like Mt. Rushmore under siege in Watergate briefings; Dean Fischer conveying the sudden silences and pauses worthy of a Pinter play when asked whether a Falklands war rumor had even a thread of truth as far as the State Department was concerned. Or towering Dave Gergen, who literally stood head and shoulders above the presidential press corps, responding with a benign smile to the irrelevant questions - zealously pursued - of a fringe-group pressie.
It was White House spokesman Gergen who once said: ''I feel the moment you walk out there and lie to the press that you're finished. God forbid the day would come when you felt you had to do it in the national interest. I do place very high stakes on the national interest, and there might come that (moment). But I think the next day you'd quit. Or whatever. You'd wait a decent interval and leave. I just think you're of no value to the president at that point, and you're of no value to anyone else. So I think Larry (Speakes) and Jim (Brady) and I and the others that have shared that podium all feel you will not draw the line, you will not lie.''