President Reagan has usually shown a genial give-and-take with the press that bespeaks confidence both in his own leadership and in the press's democratic role. It is important that this relationship not be lost now that, like so many leaders before him, he has begun to defend his policies by criticizing ''slanted'' coverage of them.
Evidently the United States is again reaching what might be called Churchill-and-Jefferson time. Time to recall Winston Churchill's reference to democracy as the worst form of government except for all the others. And Thomas Jefferson's reference to the opinion of the people as the basis of American government - so important that he would prefer newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers.
These leaders may have put things boldly. But they knew democracy, for all its untidiness, is better than efficient tyranny. And they knew a free press, for all its flaws, is essential to democracy. The risk of differing slants has to be taken for the full scrutiny of government that should be as much desired by those in power as out. As a third-world fighter for press freedom has noted, a censored or self-censored press places leaders at the great disadvantage of not seeing themselves as their people see them.
So it is probably a vain hope for Mr. Reagan to say in an interview that he wishes reporters would ''trust us, put themselves in our hands,'' when dealing with sensitive information. It is no reflection on him or his administration to say that the press's trust in a government's integrity has to be combined with alertness to the possibility of mistakes, inaccuracies, or deliberate deception by officials. The Watergate years alone would be sufficient to warn that the press could not fulfill its duty to the public without constant testing of government information from the various points of view represented in the public.
In other remarks, Mr. Reagan complained of ''downbeat'' economic coverage: ''Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off, that he should be interviewed nationwide?'' Apart from the unintended callousness of such an example, it seems to fly in the face of Mr. Reagan's repeated concern for all the nation's South Succotashes as opposed to big bad Washington. If some fellow someplace were singing the praises of present employment policy wouldn't Mr. Reagan be the first to want the media there?
With a free press, everybody has to take the bitter with the better. Mr. Reagan knows this as well as anyone, and we can imagine him coming up with a quip at his next news conference to show that he's not staying mad.