WE all have a relationship with public life, and with the parade of champions given daily notice in the press.On page ones across America, five presidents are pictured shoulder to shoulder (left to right, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon). Together responsible for 22 years of American leadership, they are together for the first time, in Simi Valley, Cal., to dedicate the Reagan Presidential Library. Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Magic Johnson, in a live press conference, tells the world he has tested HIV positive, is retiring from sports, and will serve as spokesman for AIDS prevention. There was no speculation about what the assembled presidents might accomplish: No reported consultations of the group with junior President Bush. Nothing. The economy staggers. Education falters. No coaching from the seniors. When presidents are through they are finished. Americans wish them well when they leave office, but attention stays where power resides. At the same time, Americans voice a naive faith in the power of celebrity status. Johnson as a role model would work magic with youth, as if there were some alchemy that can transmute fame into persuasive leadership. Bush, in Rome for a NATO summit, had to comment on the Johnson story: Would the Bush administration respond with a more compassionate AIDS program as did the Reagan administration several years ago when Rock Hudson's struggle with the disease was disclosed? Observe what we do and do not see. We are shown personalities. We see New York governor Mario Cuomo debating aloud with himself about running for president. We are not shown systemic failures: We do not see a BCCI banking failure coming, an Exxon tanker heading for the rocks. We hear a complaint that the Fish and Wildlife Service's plan to save the spotted owl from extinction, because industry wants to log its habitat, will cost that West Coast region 20,000 jobs. Newscasts in almost the same breath report that IBM plans to reduce its workforce by 20,000 jobs. Perhaps 20,000 jobs are not always 20,000 jobs. And there is no early retirement, buy-out plan for spotted owls. We ask peculiar things of our leaders. Why should President Bush have an opinion about Magic Johnson's decision, or an opinion he should have to voice? A president's business is running a government. Of course, politicians share with actors, sometimes in the same body, an interest in being known. But we have come to accept a kind of generic relevance of fame, which leads us to ask whoever is in front of a camera whatever is on our mind. For clear thinking, it is necessary to atomize public thought. Each citizen has to think for himself. There is no meaningful umbrella consciousness that can safely be orchestrated by celebrities. Celebrities usually have a singular gift, such as getting elected or playing basketball, that stays with itself. That gift does not extend to universal wisdom. Ironically, just as we show a trust in the medium of fame, we insist on an often cruel self-reliance for others. More than other peoples, Americans think that success ought to come from hard work, that individuals are able to control their circumstances, and that government should not be expected to guarantee basics like food and shelter. If people are in trouble - sick, poor, homeless - the fault is theirs, a substantial number of Americans believe. The pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, one of the few public figures with a smile as kind and generous as Magic's, received 5,000 letters in response to a recent article he wrote calling attention to the threat of a new generation of troubled poor; a third of the letters were hate mail, taking Brazelton to task for his compassion. This is self-reliance with a hard heart. The ideas that lead society emerge as do those that lead individuals - from within clear thought. Notoriety attracts us, but its energy is unharnessable and short-lived. It is better to distinguish public recognition from the consciousness of self-worth.