THE FIRST COLUMN I ever did for The Washington Post was about Walter Washington. I went down to the District Building and attended one of his news conferences and came away writing something about his bureaucratic style, his file-cabinet charisma, and did it, really, because this is what I thought a columnist should do. It just seemed right to take a poke at the mayor.

There is, after all, a fine tradition of columnists taking on the mayor of their city, of giving him the old what-for on occasions when they have either strayed from the path of truth or there is nothing else to write that day. Mike Royko in Chicago, for instance, turned the late Richard Daley into almost a lieterary legend and Royko even wrote a masterpiece of a book about the man called "Boss." I envied Royko his mayor. There's a lot of names you could call Walter Washington, but boss is not one of them.

Anyway, I have not been one to flout tradition. I have jumped on the mayor from time to time, but I have never written a word about his accomplishments, which while not exactly legion are nevertheless considerable. You have to know something about the recent history of this city to understand what Walter Washington has done. You have to understand that Walter Washington has provided this city with the sort of responsible presence that enabled it to get the measure of home rule it now enjoys - home rule being something of a misnomer for municipal probation. Call it what you will, it was no minor accomplishment and it came about because Walter Washington, as the appointed mayor, was able to satisfy whatever doubts the Congress had - rational or irrational - about what sort of black leadership would emerge if the citizens were given, God forbid, the vote.

He did more over something of a renaissance here. We all know better than to give government the credit for social or economic forces that are in fact beyond anyone's control, but the fact of the matter is that Walter Washington was mayor when Washington dusted off the ashes of the riots, not only put itself back together, but is flourishing - a city where the races by and large get along. There was a time not too long ago when that simply was not the case.

So you can not rob Walter Washington of what he has done and you cannot diminish his accomplishments, but that is not the same as saying he has been a good mayor or that he had taken the city's bureaucracy and made it more efficient - that things work better because of Walter Washington. They don't, and probably the only one who doesn't know that is Walter Washington himself. To hear him talk his administration has been success and those who disagree are wrong if they are black or racists if they are white. That is what he seems to be saying.

The other day, for instance, the mayor had a little birthday party that was attended by about 500 persons. The mayor, as is his wont, did some speaking, characteristically coming close to announcing his candidacy for another term and then drawing back, when he got onto the subject of second-class citizenship and, from there to racism. He said he was tired of being a second-class citizen, tired of being treated cavalierly by Congress, "tired of being set upon and used."

"You know, in (un)sophisticated times we used to have Bull Connor and they'd have dogs and all that. Now there's sophistication in this business and they use different terms. Waste and inefficiency are somebody's term to describe black folks. Think about it. Better watch it.Don't get hung up with it. Just watch how it comes out."

There was more, but you get the point. The late T. Eugene (Bull) Connor was a racist, the police chief of Birmingham, Ala., who in 1963 used dogs and fire hoses on freedom marchers and anyone else who questioned the essential wisdom and justice of Jim Crow. Back then, he was the personification of bigotry, a latter-day Simon Legree and he stood, in short, for unfettered racism. For the mayor of Washington for waste and inefficiency is akin to the tactics of Bull Connor is pretty strong stuff.

This is not the language of Walter Washington. This is not the sort of talk that earned him the trust and respect of both the black and white community, the language that makes you think that, whatever else Walter Washington is, he is in the end, a profoundly decent man. But the transcript is before me and there is no doubt that Walter Washington said what he said and the only thing open to doubt is whether he really believes what he said or wheather he is cynically using race the same way Southern politicians did - to get themselves another vote or two.

In the end, though, it doesn't really matter. The damage is done, and what is clear is that Walter Washington wants to be mayor very badly - so badly he is about to tarnish his proudest achievement.

The spirit that brought home rule to Washington .