FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA. — Fort Lauderdale, Fla-- The front page of last Sunday's Sun-Sentinel was time-capsule material. If it were put on a microchip and buried in a nuclear-waste dump, the person or thing that dug it up in a thousand years would understand exactly what was going on in the United States, whatever that was, as winter came in a year marked 1991.
These were the two headlines across the top of the page:
''Laid off in Florida -- Jobless residents scrape to get by while searching desperately for a place to work.''
''Noriega trial aids criminals -- Traffickers profit from testimony 22 deals.''
The first story, by Diane Hirth and Monica Rhor, reported that 10,000 Floridians are losing their jobs each week. Another 3,000 or 4,000 are beginning their seventh month of unemployment each week, which means basic help from the government runs out for them. These are people like us -- a 35-year-old certified public accountant named Don Hampshire; a 38-year-old telemarketing type named Carmen Gutierrez, who was going to nursing school at night until the money ran out. Last year they lost their jobs. This year they may lose their homes.
''At 35, I have a quarter in my ashtray. I have to find a dollar to put gas in my car to go for a job interview,'' said Mr. Hampshire, who had made $38,900 a year with an aircraft supply company. He is mowing lawns now to buy the gas for his job hunting.
The second story, by Warren Richey, reported that drug traffickers serving life sentences are being let out of jail, granted immunity from prosecution, given U.S. resident status, new identities and hundreds of thousands of dollars, or allowed to keep millions of dollars in illegal drug profits, or forgiven tens of millions of dollars in income taxes. All they have to do is testify against Manuel Noriega -- to justify the U.S.A.'s little multibillion-dollar invasion of Panama.
The criminals being rehabilitated to try to convict ex-dictator Noriega, supported for years by the same U.S. government now prosecuting him down the road in Miami, include these four:
* Floyd Carlton, who flew cocaine into the United States, and is now being allowed to bring his drug profits in from Panama and granted resident American status for his wife and three children and their nanny.
* Ricardo Belonick, who can keep $3.9 million in drug money and be forgiven income-tax evasions.
* Ricardo Streidinger, a Colombian once called by the Justice Department ''the No. 1 drug man in the U.S.,'' who has been granted immunity from prosecution and allowed to keep his planes and yachts on Key Biscayne.
* Steven Kalish, whose sentence of life plus 245 years in prison has been reduced to nine years (he will be freed in June 1993), and who has been given $500,000 to pay his legal bills.
Any of these fellows could be your next-door neighbor next year. Or, perhaps, they will get your house at auction if you can't keep up the mortgage payments.
Welcome to the land of the freed and the home of the brave, 1991. This is not politics. This is not economics. This is morality -- or immorality. It is wrong to trade Don Hampshire and Carmen Gutierrez for Manuel Noriega and Floyd Carlton's nanny. We have lost our way; we are being led in the wrong direction.
So it is our leader who is responsible, the man we elected president. President Bush has made his choices. He chose to invade Panama. He did that not because Manuel Noriega was involved in the drug trade, but because he was consorting with a minor-league communist named Fidel Castro. Mr. Bush has chosen to make any deals and condone thievery and lying to protect the secrets of the damage done when he struck out at real and imagined demons.
George Bush is not stupid. He is not ineffective. George Bush may or may not be a bad man, but he is certainly a bad leader of the people of the United States.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.