WASHINGTON — Washington.--Nothing ever happens in August, so the president didn't have the guilts about going to Kennebunkport for the month. The secretary of State was vacating in Wyoming, the secretary of Defense in Canada, the new ambassador to Moscow in California. Columnists were dusting off the timeless ideas they keep filed away for the dog days.
Even in the troubled Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev apparently felt confident enough to leave town -- perhaps to visit his dacha in the Crimea.
''Hey, go ahead,'' said his vice president, Gennady Yanayev. ''I'll keep an eye on things. Don't worry. Nothing ever happens in August.''
If such a conversation took place, and if Mr. Gorbachev bought it, his health must have been too shaky for him to think straight.
Thinking straight, he would have remembered what happened last August, when Saddam Hussein's army invaded Kuwait.
He wasn't around 77 years ago, but one of his many advisers could have reminded him that in August 1914, World War I began when Germany declared war on Imperial Russia, Russia invaded Germany, and Germany invaded France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
In August 1934, Adolf Hitler proclaimed himself Fuehrer of Germany on the death of President Paul von Hindenburg.
lTC In August five years later, five German armies rolled toward the Polish border, crossing the frontier at dawn on September 1 to start World War II.
In August 1945, U.S. Superfortresses dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered to end the war.
With a little coaching, Mr. Gorbachev might have remembered what happened in August 1968, when at Leonid Brezhnev's command, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to choke off the threat of Czech democracy.
But seemingly Mr. Gorbachev, like much of the population of the northern hemisphere, considers August vacation month. The bourgeois and the bureaucracy of Europe simply shut down; the only people who work are those who cater to all the rest on holiday. Thus Europe, like Washington and perhaps Mr. Gorbachev himself, was surprised by what happened to the Soviet president over the weekend.
Because the chief of the KGB is part of the cabal that pulled the coup in Moscow, we could hardly expect the Soviet intelligence service to tip Mr. Gorbachev off about what was coming. Indeed, since Mr. Gorbachev set out on his liberalization course six years ago, he may have heard so many general warnings that he was deaf to the rising chorus of recent weeks.
Less than a month ago, high army and KGB officials signed a newspaper article that used the same kind of language about the Gorbachev regime that Soviet organs once reserved for the warmongering capitalist West. It said the Soviet state was ''sinking into non-existence,'' and lambasted the ''intentionally destructive, foreign-directed activities of crafty, pompous masters.''
It was only one of many in that tone which have appeared in publications still controlled by hard-line Communist Party, army and KGB officials. And those should have been more alarming than the repeated warnings voiced by liberals like former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who have predicted a right-wing takeover for months.
If Mr. Gorbachev thought the crescendo of complaints meant a coup was imminent, it is hard to believe he would have voluntarily absented himself from the capital at this crucial time, even if it is August.
The only previous reformer to hold top power in the Kremlin was ousted -- in October 1964 -- while at his vacation home on the Black Sea. He was Nikita Khrushchev, whose efforts at change were not nearly as radical as Mr. Gorbachev's. That was nearly three decades ago, but it should have been vivid in Mr. Gorbachev's mind as reminder of what has always happened to reformers who threaten the old regime.
It is not impossible, of course, that Mr. Gorbachev went on holiday involuntarily, under forceful escort. Political careers in Moscow have ended by much more drastic means.
But all such speculation here in the early hours after the coup is just that. The only organization equipped to do more than speculate is the CIA. Nevertheless the president was surprised, this year by the Yanayev coup and last year by the Kuwait invasion.
Still, if precedent is served, the entire upper-level bureaucracy will be fishing and golfing again a year from now, on the premise that nothing ever happens in August.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.