In an unexpected move, the White House Monday afternoon named William Bennett the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in a recess appointment. Bennett had already been nominated for the post, but not confirmed. This appointment, a type made when Congress is not in session, allows him to function as chairman before confirmation.

Yesterday, without even leaving North Carolina, Bennett was promptly sworn in by Susan Metts, the administrative officer of the National Humanities Center which Bennett directs.

Bennett still must be confirmed by the Senate, at hearings which are not yet scheduled. Congress returns Jan. 25.

The recess appointment, said White House press aide Robin Gray, "is good right up to the confirmation hearing . . . He stays there until confirmation or disapproval." Gray said such appointments "are not made that often, but they are not unusual." He said some were made during the August recess.

The appointment surprised both Bennett and Joseph Duffey, the man he is replacing, although each knew it was simply a matter of time until Bennett's likely confirmation.

"You know as well as I know how long this has been going on," said Bennett, referring to the months the post went unfilled as controversy and politicking ensued.

"The president felt the time period was too long to wait to take action," said Gray, referring to the length of the congressional recess. "He felt Mr. Bennett should be there in place when Congress comes back in."

Bennett plans to come to Washington tomorrow to talk with Duffey and then officially settle in during early January. Duffey expects to leave the office sometime before then.

Bennett's confirmation appears likely, even though at least one senator, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), has raised questions about the political leanings of the Fellows at the National Humanities Center. Bennett has replied that Fellows "represent a wide variety of points of view . . . We didn't take people on the basis of political party. We take them principally on their proposals."

Bennett said he called Helms' office recently to offer to discuss this issue. "I think we both feel the need to sit down and talk things over," said Bennett, adding that Helms' office "indicated to me that he'd like to meet with me sometime," although they haven't set a date.