The last three years have not been easy times for political humorists. True, there have been high points equal to any that occurred under Nixon, Ford, or Carter: remember when the administration labeled ketchup a vegetable? But today's central political figure - President Ronald Reagan - has proven a remarkably difficult man to make fun of.
His appearance, for one thing, does not lend itself to caricature. Occasionally his hair looks like surf rolling sideways across his head, but cartoonists for the most part have not been able to lampoon any of Reagan's features, as they did Carter's teeth, or Nixon's nose. In addition, he is frustratingly genial. How can you effectively skewer someone whose standard reaction to insult is a chuckle?
One thing you can do is find an easier target among the supporting cast - which brings us to the first of a trio of newly released political funny books, ''One Hundred Watts: The James Watt Memorial Cartoon Collection.''
The recent secretary of the interior was a sitting duck for satirists. Cartoonists, in particular, delighted in Watt's headlight-sized glasses and bald dome, and this collection contains most of the classics. Included are depictions of the ''James Watt National Forest'' (a barren field), ''Crazy Jim'' the coal lease salesman (''buy one today, I'll throw in Wyoming free'') and the interior secretary's official car, complete with bumper sticker that reads ''I brake for developers.'' My personal favorite shows a band of frightened animals gathered around a campfire, at night, in the forest. ''Now we've done it,'' says a wide-eyed bear. ''We went and told a bunch of James Watt stories, and now we'll be awake all night.''
But Watt's eccentricities proved a bit more than a laughing matter. His resignation two months ago, forced by an ill-mannered remark, renders this cartoon collection somewhat moot. With Watt - the administration's lightning rod - gone, will more bolts of criticism be directed at President Reagan personally? This intriguing question takes us to another new book, ''There He Goes Again: Reagan's Reign of Error.''
The President, in addition to being satire-resistant, is able to say wildly inaccurate things and get away with it. At least, that's what many in the Washington press corps believe - the New Republic, for instance, recently ran a long article to that effect.
In ''Reagan's Reign of Error,'' authors Mark Green and Gail MacColl have attempted to compile a definitive record of Reagan's misstatements, with corrections. Some of the ''mistakes'' mentioned aren't so much errors as political rhetoric the authors disapprove of or that today looks foolish - such as promises to balance the budget.
Others, such as the famous anecdote about a man who bought vodka with his food stamps, are apocryphal stories for which no documentation can be found. But a large portion of this 120-page paperback is really composed of statements President Reagan made that are just plain wrong. Leonid Brezhnev was not the first person to propose the nuclear freeze, as Reagan claimed last year. (It was Sen. Mark Hatfield.) Eighty percent of our air pollution does not come from hydrocarbons released by plants. (Reagan himself quickly retracted that one.) The percentage of your earnings taken in taxes, on average, has not doubled since 1960. (It's gone from 10.4 percent to 12 percent.)
Reagan, who clearly projects a vision of what he wants America to be like, may not need to get his facts perfect to convince the US public that he should be their leader. Presidential spokesman Dave Gergen, according to this book, considers the error issue trivial, ''pure journalistic fantasy.''
Green, a former Democratic candidate for Congress and now head of the Democracy Project think tank, believes, on the other hand, that Reagan's misstatements reveal ''the kind of casualness that tolerates and perpetuates error.'' This book, coming as it does just before the 1984 election heats up, is obviously meant to persuade readers that if Reagan gets his details wrong, his larger programs must be misdirected as well. In fact it's easy to imagine ''Reagan's Reign of Error'' being passed out as part of the press kits at the ' 84 Democratic National Convention.
Yet another method of lampooning politicians is the shotgun approach - fire at everything and you're bound to hit something. ''Washingtoon,'' a weekly comic strip by Mark Stamaty that appears in the Village Voice and the Washington Post, depicts a capital where everyone is vacant or venal. Big scoops are broken by a reporter from ''Dishwasher Monthly,'' and the Defense Department is busy developing a bomb lethal only to those who don't carry a credit card.
A just-published anthology of ''Washingtoon'' comic strips has its moments, such as one strip where the director of the Office of Manglement and Budget receives his new video game, Budget Masher. But much of the humor is so heavy-handed it has a hard time taking off. Upon finishing this book, I felt as if I had just attended a particularly grim Libertarian Party campaign rally.