BACK IN THE 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and Oveta Culp Hobby was the secretary of HEW, a man named Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio. Before that, all over America polio epidemics killed many people, incapacitated many more and kept kids indoors during the summer--hot, bored but scared to go out. Yet when the government ran out of vaccine and Mrs. Hobby was asked why, she said, "No one could have forseen the public demand for the Salk vaccine."

It is in this spirit that the First Annual Oveta Culp Hobby Award goes to Edwin Meese III and all the boys down at the White House who, in many interviews and backgrounders, have stated their absolute consternation that the American people would have objected to a policy that reinstated tax deductions for racially segregated schools.

In fact, so flabbergasted were these presidential advisers that they went out of their way to explain to the press how things went wrong. In loathsome detail, they set out how the decision to change the policy percolated up from the innards of the Treasury. It went from bureaucrat to bureaucrat where it was treated with a lot less respect than if it had involved something really important--say, tax credits for corporations.

Finally, this new policy managed to wend its way to the White House where it was raised at a staff meeting. It was discussed with such animation that by his own account, Michael Deaver, the deputy chief of staff, simply tuned out. Other White House sources could hardly keep awake. Meese, the president's counselor, was the one man who knew most about the issue. He apparently thought it was no big deal. This may be why he has been mentioned as a possible attorney general.

As a result of all this, the White House is undertaking a "factual reconstruction" of what happened. It is thought that something went wrong with the system. Deaver did not report to chief of staff James Baker and Baker to Meese and maybe Tinkers and Evers are in there somewhere? There's always the Chance. At any rate, because of this terrible management failure, the president approved a change that would allow segregated schools to receive what amounts to a government subsidy.

It was then that the howling started and the Reagan administration had to prove that it is not racist. The president, having enunciated a policy of supporting racist schools, then said he was against that policy and would introduce legislation to implement the policy that he had rescinded. This seemed to make sense either to him or whoever runs the country and then, having instituted the management review, everyone went off for the weekend.

Not so fast, though. Nowhere in all the accounts of what went wrong does the word "morality" come up. The White House thinks that what it has on its hands is a management problem, when, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, what it lacks is a heart. The sum total of all the leaks (some leaks are more equal than other leaks) and backgrounders and even on-the-record quotes is that this was a staffing problem, pure and simple. The president of all the people was not expected to know a moral issue when he saw one. His staff let him down.

As for the staff, they realized something was wrong when they started to read the mail. Had the political fallout been minimal, there would have been no recision of the policy, no management review. Everything would have been hunky-dory.

But it still would have been wrong. Right and wrong are not decided by telegrams received at the White House nor by yelps from the Republican National Committee. The old policy was a good policy because it was right, and if not, why does the president now want to reinstate it?

What happened is that the president got his political ears pinned back. It cannot be that after decades of the struggle for civil rights, the president was educated when his aides managed to round up two blacks in his administration and he heard personally what they had to say.

Like Mrs. Hobby, the president and his aides are out of touch. They did not appreciate the anxieties of the aged when it came to Social Security and they do not appreciate the values of the country when it comes to civil rights. The White House does not need a management review. It needs a history lesson.