In front of the colonnades of the White House Rose Garden President Reagan welcomed Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr. back from a Syrian jail. Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson - whose intervention helped liberate him - waited to ask, in effect, ''what next?'' on the political front.
It was a situation that even a jaded Washington, which has seen about everything, watched in deepening surprise.
The outdoor meeting at the White House was the stuff of drama. It involved the three principals differently.
Bombardier-navigator Goodman, knocked out of the skies by a Syrian antiaircraft shell a month ago and now surrounded by family, had been raised by almost incomprehensible circumstances to national prominence.
In prison he received blows from guardians but also 60,000 pieces of mail and the subsequent attention of prime minister and president.
His mood was sheepish but composed. Whisked to Washington for a ceremonial welcome, he continued to repeat that his first wish was ''to give my wife a hug.'' On reaching home soil, tired but happy, he made the formal comment ''God bless America.'' He retained dignity in the central role.
It was a more complicated situation for President Reagan. Speaking for the nation, he welcomed Goodman back. Conscious that a presidential election is beginning and that Mr. Jackson is not only a Democrat but an explosive unknown quantity, he thanked him graciously for his role. He used the opportunity to express hope for better relations with Syria and peace in the Middle East. ''This young naval officer was flying a mission of peace,'' he declared somewhat ambiguously.
At the end of the ceremony, President Reagan told reporters he would ''of course'' be willing to meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad, and said Assad's release of Lieutenant Goodman might lead to such an encounter.
''We have opened communications with them (the Syrians),'' he commented, ''and hope it will lead to that.''
Jesse Jackson, the most unlikely of the three participants, expressed admiration for the rescued flyer, gratitude to President Reagan, and an apparent determination to keep his own political role visible. In a lengthy airport statement, as he returned with Lieutenant Goodman, he thanked Syrian President Assad, agreed that there was ''political risk but not moral risk'' in his own mission, and urged President Reagan to meet with all the leaders of the region: ''Great foreign policy requires great leadership,'' he said.
There were other symbols of drama at the spot which has seen many dramas. Along the sidewalk of the White House as it faces Pennsylvania Avenue a new line of cement barricades is installed to protect the ancient edifice from just such shock-suicide attacks at that which wiped out Marine headquarters in Beirut.
And Jackson recalled his own biblical studies when he likened the missile that knocked Lieutenant Goodman out of the skies near Damascus to the account of the bolt of lightning that struck Saul, later to become the Apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus.
Washington watched the drama with its own political interest.
Jesse Jackson has had a spectacular victory; but will he last, it is asked?
Some answer ''yes.'' Observers note that in the presidential election of 1980 only about 53 percent of all US eligible voters bothered to vote. This compares with the normal record of 60 to 80 percent or more in other modern democracies. One of the biggest nonvoting eligible groups is the blacks.
Mr. Jackson is the only black among eight announced Democratic presidential candidates. Virtually nobody thinks the Democrats will nominate him, but he has enormous capacity to stir the million or more nonvoting black segment.
Jackson, many feel, is riding the crest of this increasing black political activity. His bold stroke in Syria makes him a national symbol. It is a target for Democrats. And it is noted that nearly 85 percent of the black vote in 1980 went to Jimmy Carter.