President Clinton ended a small but increasingly nasty controversy over plans to have him give the annual Jefferson Lecture, an honor traditionally reserved for well-known figures in the humanities, with a simple: No thanks.

William R. Ferris, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, had invited the president to give the prestigious lecture, but a chorus of scholars said Clinton was unfit for the honor because he was a politician, not a scholar.

A Clinton speech would have broken a 27-year tradition of evenings with intellectuals such as Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward, Barbara Tuchman, John Hope Franklin, Walker Percy, Toni Morrison and Sidney Hook. The lecture, given at the Kennedy Center in recent years, draws a packed house; the speech is widely distributed and includes a $10,000 cash prize.

The president's rejection of the speaking engagement was announced yesterday by Ferris.

"We appreciate his consideration," Ferris said. "We regret this because we think the venue would have been a rich resource for all Americans, including current and future scholars. I think it would have been a good venue for all presidents, if each president had a chance to talk about humanities and to reflect on his or her presidency in a historical context. Presidents are always remembered under fire, through their press conferences and so forth. There is no thoughtful platform."

A senior official at the White House said the decision was a way to cut off the growing firestorm. "It was basically straightforward. We did not want the work of the NEH to be called into question. The idea that Bill Ferris had--to have this president and the future presidents talk about history and their place in history to a large public audience--has merit. We think it should happen in another forum," the official said.

The critics thought Ferris could have offered a platform other than the Jefferson Lecture. They were fearful of politicizing the honor, spoiling its reputation as a coveted acknowledgment of scholarship, and undoing the repair work undertaken by the academic community to show that the NEH was not an agency with a political bent. On Capitol Hill the Republican-led Congress cut the NEH's budget 40 percent in 1995, but the agency has reestablished goodwill and has received small increases in the last two years.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, a historian who delivered the lecture in 1991, was particularly incensed at the Clinton invitation.

"The NEH was established to promote and disseminate scholarship. The Jefferson Lecture was meant to symbolize that purpose, and to give it to the president is perverting the purpose of the lecture and the endowment," she said. Told of the president's rejection, Himmelfarb said, "I hope he turned down the invitation for the right reasons, because it was inappropriate, not just because it was causing some embarrassment."

Stanley N. Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University, reacted wryly to the president's no thanks. "What an unusual display of good sense," said Katz. He had argued that the NEH brand would be damaged, and eventual publicity might backfire. "It is the wrong instinct. Ferris is a purely good fellow but it is absolutely characteristic of the man's failure to understand that one can injure an organization if you treat it as purely something to be marketed."

Some scholars cautiously liked the idea, but not the platform. "It would be fascinating to hear a president talk on the subject of arts and culture and the role of the federal government," said John Hammer, president of the National Humanities Alliance. "The Jefferson Lecture is reserved for scholars and although all the presidents in my lifetime have been interesting, they have not qualified as scholars."

CAPTION: NEH's William R. Ferris drew critics' fire with his presidential invitation.