Diplomatic language--the practice of removing someone's legs while kissing his or her cheeks--isn't exclusively the lingo of international diplomacy and intrigue.

Many in the lesser ranks in Washington--lobbyists, lawyers, politicians, journalists and bureaucrats--understand and use it, too.

In fact, sometimes entire news stories, speeches and testimonials are drenched in the political beltway-speak that is a sub-dialect of the way diplomats talk in public. It sounds like one thing--some would say gibberish--to the untrained ear. But to the discriminating, its meaning is usually all too clear.

The trick, in this town, is knowing that what someone says with a smile is often meant as a poke in the teeth.

Unfortunately, folks who don't drink eight glasses a day of Potomac River water don't always understand diplomat-speak. In most parts of the country, people say what they mean and mean what they say. That kind of thing could wreck the economy of official Washington.

For example: A Texan who tells a fellow rancher that he's "got a fine-looking Angus" is delivering a genuine compliment. What he is saying is, that's "a lot of bull." As in bulls, cows and romance in the air. It is a good thing!

But when a Washington diplomat emerges red-faced from a frustrating meeting with an uncooperative, irritating dictator, he often will say they had a "frank and open exchange of views." What that means is, what the dictator said is "a lot of bull." But that is not a good thing!

Now to the civil service, which is not always as civil as it seems. Especially if you speak the lingo.

Last week, the Merit Systems Protection Board issued a lengthy report on, you guessed it, the state of the merit system. The board's chairman is Ben L. Erdreich, a former Democratic member of Congress.

The study was based on a lengthy investigation by the independent merit system watchdog agency.

What the report said, in a nutshell, is that the government needs to cool it with special programs designed to make it easier for agencies to hire African Americans and Hispanics for professional, clerical and administrative jobs, and for other positions.

In diplomatic terms, the board said the government no longer needs, and should stop using, the special entry programs. In some cases, it said, the programs don't help minorities. In others, they skirt merit system principles. Overall, the board said, the goals of the programs have been reached and can be maintained through regular hiring procedures.

The programs were set up 18 years ago under a federal court order designed to make it easier for agencies to hire minorities and Hispanics. In recent years, the merit board said, federal agencies have hired African Americans and Hispanics in rates that exceed their representation in the private sector.

The Clinton administration has made the Office of Personnel Management the point agency in improving the percentage of Hispanics in every government agency and especially at middle- and upper-grade jobs. Its data show that Hispanics are "underrepresented" in every federal agency--except the Justice Department. OPM believes the programs have helped increase diversity in government.

Folks with working political antennae also are aware that Hispanics represent a fast-growing and powerful political bloc that could help elect the next president. Unlike some bloc votes--which are taken for granted by one party or another--the Hispanic bloc, if there is such a thing, may be up for grabs.

So, for a variety of reasons, Erdreich's report came, for some people, at a rotten time. And reached rotten conclusions.

When it was delivered to OPM, officials there were, uh, very unhappy.

But this is Washington, stiff-upper-lip-land.

When Janice R. Lachance, director of the Office of Personnel Management, made known her views on the report, she couldn't even bring herself to say it was "interesting" or "useful in part," which are pretty stock, and safe, answers.

What she said was that the report was "not very useful."

What she probably meant is more like:

"#!*@ Ben Erdreich and the horse he rode in on!"

In other words, she doesn't like the report.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com

Monday, Jan. 17, 2000