It turns out that former President Reagan and President Bush knew a lot more about what was going on in the Iran-Contra affair than they let on when asked about it at the time the scandal broke. The question now is what, if anything, the country will do about it.

It can (a) ignore it; (b) pretend it doesn't matter; (c) express annoyance and keep its fingers crossed, hoping that something like it doesn't happen again.The news media seem to have opted for (c). There have been a scattering of news stories and a few editorials since the extent of Reagan's and Bush's involvement became known at the trial of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, but there has been no real effort to focus the country's attention on it or explain what it means.

What was at stake when Iran-Contra broke, as Reagan's people were well aware, was nothing less than possible impeachment. Essentially, Reagan's public defense was that he didn't know what was going on, which was reinforced by the now discredited Tower Commission, which blamed his aides. The new evidence shows that he was actively engaged in soliciting illegal outside aid to the Contras, despite his denials.

Bush, who maintained during the presidential campaign that he was "out of the loop," turns out to have been Reagan's courier in offering "enticements" to Honduras to support the Contras. "My conscience is clear," he told the press last week, which says nothing and could mean anything.

Yet the press does not seem unduly concerned about all this duplicity and what it says about the way the country has been governed, either out of a misguided notion that it is best not to rock the boat or because it has exhausted its supply of civic outrage after eight years of Reagan.

The reason it is important not to allow this kind of deception to slip by without strongly condemning it should not have to be stated. It is to prevent it from happening again. If the country's highest officials think they can get away with such behavior or be let off the hook as Reagan has been let off the hook, there is nothing to prevent them from repeating it.

The public relies on the press for perspective on the news as well as for the news itself. When the impression is created through neglect or indifference that the lies of Reagan and Bush are not that important or that nothing can or ought to be done about them, the media are lulling one part of the country into a sense of false security and assigning another part to despair.

Iran-Contra was an attempt at usurpation of power by the White House and a cabal of military and intelligence officials in the name of patriotism and profit. And when they were caught, they lied their heads off about it. And the lies are continuing. Unless that is nailed down beyond a doubt, all the talk in Washington these days about ethics is childish.

Congress won't do it, and if the media don't have the stomach for it, where does that leave the American people?