They said it couldn't be done. And they were so right. Despite some high-level neck-wringing, "veterans' preference" is alive and well in government.

The Carter administration has won most of its battle for the right to "reform" the civil service the way it thinks it should be reformed. When Congress gives final approval, the White House will begin to implement new rules, making it easier to discipline federal workers, withhold pay raises from nonproductive managers and exercise tougher and more businesslike control over federal executives. Like it or not, the White House did an excellent job of getting what it wants.

But one of the things the president most wanted - an end to lifetime hiring and tenure benefits for military veterans - generated too much flak.Both the Senate and House versions of civil service reform make it clear the vets are to be left alone.

White House officials originally believed this was the year - and civil service reform the vehicle - to eliminate veterans' preference. It has been the target of reformers (led by some women's groups, good-government organizations and nonveterans) for decades. This year the White House tried a new approach, billing veterans' preference as being antiminority. That argument overlooked somewhat the fact that a lot of minorities have also served in the military and have benefits from veterans' preference, particulary in the postal service.

Whatever its merits (or bad points), veterans' preference is with us. And it probably will be until it dies of old age, long after the current civil service system has been reformed.

Veteran's preference haters say reform of the system was blocked by politically fearful members of Congress who were bullied by aging, cigar-chomping leaders of veteran's organizations. But not all veterans' leaders smoke cigars, are senior citizens or have that much clout with Congress. Some people believe that veterans' preference survived, at least in part, because a lot of people like the idea of giving a helping hand in federal employment to veterans, even veterans of such ancient conflicts as World War II.

Ironically, time and the current draft laws are on the side of people who have spent so much time, energy and money fighting veterans' preference laws. The percentage of military veterans within the population is shrinking daily. The draft is gone. There are no shooting wars in sight. The military is smaller than at any time in recent years.

Within five years, most veterans of World War II and even Korea will be out of, or about to leave, the labor market. There will be a lot of Vietnam era vets (by some counts it was the nation's longest war). But the grows smaller. And as the numbers drop, so will support for veterans' preferance. The day is even coming when a nonveteran (our last five presidents have been Navy men) may live in the White House!

The Carter administration won't win any points with antiveterans preference groups this year because the changes will not be made by law. But if people can wait awhile, the "problem" of veterans' preference will be taken care of by then.

Mike Nave takes over Oct. 1 as president of the 190,000-member National Association of Retired Federal Employes. Nave defeated NARFE vice president Robert Beers at last week's New Orleans convention. Nave is a retired Chicago postal official and former president of the National Association of Postal Supervisors.

Jack Goldberg, retired top official at the Civil Service Commission, was elected vice president of NARFE. He defeated incumbent John McClelland (who could not succeed himself as president) for the No. 2 job. Monroe W. Williamson, of Falls Church, was reelected secretary-treasurer of NARFE, the biggest and most influential federal-postal retiree group.