When Richard Nixon's library finally found a home in San Clemente, Calif., citizens of the town were for the most part delighted. But there were some restrained comments, too. One resident, though not opposed to locating the library there, was quoted as saying: ''Any man who becomes president of the United States has made so many moral compromises he's sold out long before he even got there.''
That cynical assertion is heard often by political correspondents. But its repetition doesn't make it true. It usually comes from those who misunderstand how the American system of government works - and who are unable to feel comfortable with a decision-making process that often calls for compromise.
American leaders must become experts in bringing about accommodation. They must practice, if they are to get things done in a system based on majority rule , what has often been called ''the art of the possible.''
But for many Americans - usually those who find themselves firmly attached to one extreme view or the other of the ideological spectrum - such compromises, if they run against their own adamantly held positions, are sometimes deemed less than morally right.
But Mr. Nixon's case was of an entirely different nature. Only a presidential pardon kept him from possibly being tried for committing a crime or crimes. And he stepped down from the presidency under threat of impeachment - for misconduct of his office, not for some compromise over legislation.
A discussion of what is right and what is wrong in a leader's actions is relevant these days as the presidential election year breaks over the horizon. Already some members of Congress are beginning to duck and weave in deference to what the voters might say about their performance when they go to the polls next year.
For example, there are many Democrats and some Republicans who are very opposed to the President's defense plans and who recently yielded some ground to him, enough to hand him the MX missile he so desires.
And why? Some have conceded privately that they do not want to be seen by voters as being opposed to a popular President's demand for more defense.
But to get the MX, requiring a majority vote in Congress, Reagan bowed a bit, too, providing assurance that he sought accommodation not confrontation with the Soviets and that he would make a special effort to achieve an arms control agreement.
From the ''doves,'' especially the most extreme ones, come charges that this was an unprincipled cave-in by those who, while continuing to raise questions about the value of the MX, still gave in to the President's demand.
And from the ''hawks,'' particularly those on the far right, come expressions of outrage over what they see as just another indication of Reagan's wishy-washy - and, yes, to them morally wrong - position vis-a-vis the Soviets. At worst, the arms compromise might be called opportunism. But it might also be described as practical politics, with accommodations by the President and the Congress leading to a resolution of the dispute that was perhaps in the best interest of the nation.