William P. Clark Jr., President Reagan's nominee for deputy secretary of state, got quite a going-over before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for answering "I don't know." Among the things he told the senators he didn't know was the name of the prime minister from Zimbabwe.

Clark's program wasn't that he didn't know. It was that he told the senators he didn't know. It is a basic rule of any talk show that you never say anything to which there is no possible witty or erudite rejoinder. Make that mistake on the Johnny Carson program and you'll never be invited back. Same with the Senate.

Nominee Clark actually had a number of alternatives to his starting revelation of unbriefedness, all of them time-tested on Capitol Hill. Here, for his edification, are a few alternative replies to a Congress curious to know:

Who is the prime minister of Zimbabwe?

The William F. Buckley Demurrer, delivered while leaning sideways and chewing on a sharpened pencil:

"My answer is in three parts: a.The plenipotentiary Zimbabwean is incontrovertibly well-traveled; this by definition, as an extrahemispherical national; b. All prime ministers are men; he is a prime minister; ergo, he is a man. Sen. Percy will see that the syllogism obtains even if he is a woman. c. Now, gentlemen, to return the interrogative: Is he a Catholic?"

The Financier's Finesse:

With all due respect, senators, while we sit here arguing the table of organization of the foreign services of Africa, Zurich is trading in marks, yen, kroner and gold. Gold, gentlemen! Now there may or may not be gold in the Zimbabwe hills, but Zimbabwe, unless I am mistaken, is certainly in Africa. As is Morocco, in which the dirham is the currency. I have had my staff prepare a report on the dirham, which I would beg the senators' permission to read in its entirety."

The Electrocardiograph Out (requires the assistance of an attorney to lean over in front of the witness and preempt his microphone):

"I fear I must remind the senators, before they press further on this matter of the names of officials of Zimbabwe, that my client has only just been released from grueling tests at Cedars of Mt. Sinai Hospital and is here against the advice of his doctors, and I might add his lovely wife, who is present in the hearing room today. At his doctor's suggestion, I myself have prepared a list of the prime ministers that the nominee knows, which are as follows. . ."

The Helmsian Hem and Haw:

"I'm not going to answer that. That, I believe, is classified information in Zimbabwe. Maybe it shouldn't be classified, and then again maybe it should be classified, but it's not for me to say. I have great respect for the senators, great, great respect, and it is with great respect that I say: That information is classified. I'm not going to answer it."

The Entrepreneur's Imploring:

"When I was a boy, I collected bottles on the street for a penny apiece and people laughed at me, because I wore European clothes and carried a fiddle. There wasn't time, Senator, with all due respect, for the niceties of State dinners and Mercedes Benzes and great international affairs with the Zimbabwean prime minister, who has my greatest respect. Not back in coal country, there wasn't. And yet when the whatchamacallits went bad -- Yeah, acoustics, thank you, Sen. Biden -- when the acoustics went bad in Avery Fischer Hall, who did they go to for the money? So since you are busy, and I am busy, could we get on with it, senators?

The Abe Option;

"I don't know."

The Abe Option, in fact, was the one used by Nominee Clark, who unfortunately forgot some essential elements: Unlike Abraham Lincoln, he was not born in a log cabin and never won a penknife for being the ugliest man anybody ever met -- and, unlike Abraham Lincoln, he lives in a time when newspapers cover every hearing the Senate holds and then make up jokes the day after to prove how smart they are.

The funny thing is that when it was all over, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) said that Clark, the man who did not know, was "one of the most forthright and engaging witnesses ever to appear" before his committee, and Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.) -- who was persistent in asking questions Clark couldn't answer -- referred to him as "a very nice guy." William P. Clark, in other words, is going to get the job he doesn't yet know much about.

As for the prime minister of Zimbabwe, he is, of course, the distinguished Robert Mugabe. You can look it up.