SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Whatever the revelations about President Reagan's role in the Iran-Contra affair, the American people don't seek retribution against him, said former President Jimmy Carter.

''There's a very strong aversion now, which I share, to punishing President Reagan. We've had one Watergate, and nobody wants another,'' Carter said Thursday night at a panel discussion on the press and the presidency.

Carter said Reagan does not face antagonism from the public, unlike former President Richard Nixon, who became the only U.S. president ever to resign from office on Aug. 9, 1974, due to the Watergate break-in coverup.

''No matter how much is revealed in the future about what President Reagan did know or didn't know (about the Iran-Contra affair), I don't think there ought to be any ultimate goal of a punitive nature,'' Carter said.

''I think the revelation of fact is both inevitable and adequate.''

The panel discussion was sponsored by Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Carter, who served as president from 1977 to 1981, also said he had no criticism of The Miami Herald story that led to the demise of Gary Hart's presidential campaign. The May 3 story said Hart had entertained a Miami model in his Washington townhouse while his wife was away.

''It was a story that had been building for years ... regardless of the techniques they (the newspaper) used or the complete accuracy of the story, I don't have any criticism to make of the story,'' Carter said. ''I think it was true.''

Carter also said he believed that news coverage of the personal lives of political candidates was justified.

''This is part of our political system because we don't have a party system,'' he said. ''When I ran for president in 1976, I ran as Jimmy Carter. I could not possibly have gotten the support of the Democratic Party.''

Carter, who described his presidency as one receiving virtually unrelentingly negative news coverage, told the audience, ''Since I've been out of the White House, the situation has improved.''

After the laughter from the audience subsided, Carter finished, ''With each passing year, and now I feel quite at ease with the press.''

Other panel members were Albert Hunt, Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal; Robert Erburu, chairman and chief executive officer of The Times-Mirror Co.; and Timothy Russert, vice president of NBC News. The moderator was CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather.