Elizabeth Dole. We have to whisper lest we be heard in the White House. It is a tricky thing, after all, to publicly praise someone for doing a good job when that very praise might mean to the White House that she is doing a bad job. But there is no escaping it. Let us now praise Liddy Dole.

Since becoming Secretary of Transportation, she has acted for all the world as if she did not know that this was the administration dedicated to knocking the consumer movement into a cocked hat. This is hard to believe since she herself came from the White House, but that seems to be the case. Let us hope no one is noticing.

Take air bags. The administration is opposed to them. This is not a minor matter to the president. To him, air bags are symbolic of the over-regulated society--just another example of the government telling private enterprise how to run things. Air bags are the sort of thing that has hobbled us vis a vis the Japanese and might have had a hand in the unconscionable giveaway of the Panama Canal.

Shhhh. Dole is for airbags.

At least she thinks they are worth looking at. She supports their installation in 5,000 government cars under the wild-eyed and downright socialist notion that they would be worth the money if they saved some lives. In fact, Dole is considered to be in favor of auto safety in general, which is a bit different from just telling people to slow down. Auto safety means you design a car assuming people will have accidents. Because they will.

Up to recently, this has not been the thinking of the Reagan administration. Before Dole, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lowered the standards for auto bumpers. Instead of being able to withstand a collision of 5 miles per hour, the standard was changed to 2 1/2. This was supposed to lower the cost of the car. It did not. It only raised the cost of auto insurance. This change was authorized by the head of NHTSA, Raymond Peck. He quit in April.

Shhhhh. Dole did not ask him to stay.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. Maybe Dole can get away with being reasonable about traffic safety and other matters because she is a woman. The administration, after all, is in trouble with women. It opposed them on issues close to their heart--abortion, the ERA--and then found to its shock that women took it personally. Having panicked over the so-called gender gap, it has now moved to placate women and, among other things, named Dole to Transportation. Like a reasonable James Watt with a totally different constituency, she may in fact be beyond firing.

One should not go too far here. Liddy Dole is not to be confused with either Ralph Nader or Teddy Kennedy. She remains a moderate Republican who, despite her dissent from the White House religion, subscribes to the view that the best budget is a small budget. She has already proposed a massive cut in mass transit funds--to less than a third of what Congress authorized.

But on the whole, Dole has been going her own way. One of her first policy decisions, for instance, was to warn states that they will lose federal money if they don't abide by a law that requires that at least 10 per cent of their highway and mass transit contracts go to minority-owned businesses. You may want to read that sentence again since this is the administration that is opposed to quotas and would prefer to see these sorts of things negotiated.

Shhh. Liddy Dole believes in enforcing the law.

Moving fast (she was confirmed only in February), Dole has already unbungled the mess that the government made of Union Station and announced that it would no longer be a visitors' center cum bat cave but--of all things--a train station. She also decided that it would be good to finally get some use out of Dulles Airport and she's going to take another look at the computerized traffic control system for Shirley Highway. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, but I'm sure it's something.

Of course, all this could change tomorrow--but only if we're indiscreet. Keep quiet about Liddy Dole.