WASHINGTON. — WAS IT just a silly dream, or did it really happen?
I have this hazy memory of the president of the United States, standing at the Iwo Jima memorial, telling us that the welfare of the nation depended on amending the Bill of Rights to ban flag-burning.
It's hard to believe, but I seem to recall senators and congressmen talking for hours about how flag-burning would sweep the country if we didn't change the First Amendment to prevent it.
Somehow I vaguely recollect that a majority of both houses of Congress voted to amend the Constitution to protect us against this epidemic of pyromania, yet their effort fell short of the required two-thirds.
It seems there were editorials and columns by the hundred, warning that the flag was such a flaming political issue that those who dared to stand up against the amendment hysteria would regret it come election day.
But obviously none of that happened in the real world, because TC here it is October, and just as on the morning after the shelling of Fort McHenry, the flag is still there. The Bill of Rights is still intact. And only the most finely tuned Washington antennae can pick up any echo of the flag-burning furor in elections out around the nation.
This is not to say that hot-button campaigning has disappeared. Witness the way Jesse Helms is raising re-election funds by railing about pornography, as if his defeat would allow the ghost of Robert Mapplethorpe to come back and corrupt all our children.
Nor is this to say that flag-burning will not re-emerge as an issue in the closing weeks, as it already has been used in a few remote contests where the red-hot element seems susceptible to simple-minded demagoguery. Having written that sentence, I am half persuaded to scrap this column, lest it remind some cynical media consultant of what the opinion polls said on the subject only months ago.
After all, during the showdown in June one of the Senate elders, Strom Thurmond, said, ''I think you will see it come back again. I think you are going to see an aroused public because people believe in the flag.'' One of the House red-hots, Newt Gingrich, asked hopefully, ''How can it avoid being a big political issue? . . . This is going to be a legitimate, fair fight over values.''
And Bob Dole seemed to gloat as he said in the closing hours of debate, ''About all we've heard from our opponents is a frenzy about their own campaigns and re-election prospects, about campaign commercials and the terror of facing the people out on the campaign trail. . . . ''
If those opposing the amendment had not happened to think about those fears, Mr. Dole was offering a helpful reminder to his Senate colleagues, who might want to think ahead to the campaign as they voted.
Sure enough, 58 senators did vote for an amendment, but that was nine short of what was needed. Besides, by that time the Senate vote was moot, because the House tally had fallen short by 34 votes. The Senate roll call was pushed to put opponents on the spot, to make a record for use by their challengers come fall.
Yet if any senator has even heard the word ''flag'' since June, let alone been threatened politically by it, he has kept it quiet. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, one of the Southerners who opposed the amendment, said he had never gotten as much mail on any issue as he did before the vote, but had not a single letter on it since.
Mr. Bush, after asserting the absolute need for a flag amendment, has not mentioned it -- which says much about his sincerity when he stood so dramatically before the memorial at ++ Arlington. He and the Congress have the budget and other pressing matters on their minds, as they should have had when they were wasting their time and the nation's emotions on this sideshow last spring.
The only thing that worries civil libertarians about the president's silence on the traditional hot-button agenda is that he may have a secret, a way to make all those right-wing populist wishes come true before he runs again in 1992. Its name is Souter.