“”As Mark Twain said, rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” joked a wan George Pataki, making a surprise appearance as doctors briefed the press about his post-appendectomy condition this week.

The governor wouldn’t have had to perform damage control if he and/or his staff had earlier recalled another famous quotation from the pen of Mr. Clemens: “When in doubt, tell the truth.”

Elected officials and others firmly stuck in the public eye could save bundles of money they throw at spinmeisters if they would simply — and finally — learn the wisdom of fully and quickly disclosing information they know to be of interest and importance to the public.

Consider, as further evidence, Thursday’s page-one revelation that two state agencies sat for two months on the news that radioactive material leaking from the Indian Point nuclear plants was creeping toward the Hudson River.

In both cases, the failure to be forthcoming, you can be sure, produced unwelcome public reactions, such as “What are they hiding?” and “Why should I believe them now?”

The governor’s appendix was removed in emergency surgery after abdominal pains brought him to Cortlandt’s Hudson Valley Hospital Center on Feb. 16. His physician there reported no sign of infection after the operation. It came as a surprise when Pataki wasn’t released a couple of days later, as expected; as a bigger surprise when he was later transferred by ambulance to New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center; as an even bigger one when he quickly underwent unannounced new surgery to remove blockage in his digestive system.

Further explanation was sparse at the Manhattan hospital, until about a week later, when doctors revealed that Pataki’s condition had been more serious than previously reported. That delayed disclosure seemed to touch off more, not less, scuttlebutt, even a cancer rumor.

The prescription to prevent such a PR disaster? Daily press briefings — at the risk of repetition, at the risk of admitting that a would-be presidential contender is pretty sick — beginning as soon as the first surgery ended. Tell the public what you know, as soon as you know it.

The same advice stands for the state Health Department and Department of Environmental Conservation. It was clear from a Dec. 5 e-mail unearthed by the anti-Indian Point environmental group Riverkeeper that the agencies knew of test results showing that strontium 90 had reached a point about 100 yards from the Hudson. The public knew of a radioactive leak from the plants’ spent fuel pool, but this was new detail.

It need not have been an alarming one, as Riverkeeper noted in a Thursday story by reporter Greg Clary, expressing more concern about the lack of disclosure than the level of radiation involved.

Contradictory, incomplete and tardy information is a disservice, not only to the public, but to the interests of the focus of public attention.

We return to America’s greatest humorist for the final observation: “Honesty: the best of all the lost arts.””

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