The White House is quickly learning the importance of prompt and accurate disclosure when an official becomes subject to legal investigation. Previous administrations learned this in cases involving graver questions than have appeared in the current episode of national security adviser Richard Allen. Yet the Reagan people are seeing how public doubt - and the media appetite for scandal - can feed on even a $1,000 morsel when those in authority wait for others to bring it to the surface and then fail to present the facts correctly at once.
According to the first White House statements last week, President Reagan heard about the incident only on Friday. And Mr. Allen had already been cleared of wrongdoing in receiving $1,000 in cash from a Japanese magazine after it was given an interview with Mrs. Reagan last January. Almost immediately the Justice Department said the inquiry was in fact continuing, as it legally must until the Attorney General decides whether a special prosecutor is called for. Inevitably there has been a revival of previous questions about Mr. Allen's dealings in and out of govern-ment.
This week spokesman David Gergen wise-ly did not wait for others to set the record straight on when Mr. Reagan was informed about the cash and the investigation. It was actually not last Friday but sometime back in September when the investigation began. Indeed, in any organization, for the boss not to have been promptly informed about such a situation would have been a scandal in itself.
From Mr. Gergen's White House experience during the Watergate years, he must have been particularly alert to preventing a return of Senator Baker's relentless question about what the President knew and when he knew it. It should be clear now that, in any future instance of this kind, the White House could cut its losses through a policy of swift and candid information rather than ordeal by leaks and speculation.
In the Allen case itself, suspicion can be dispelled by all parties now acting in Mr. Gergen's spirit of keeping the record straight.