IT IS ALMOST unimaginable - the political life of the nation without Hubert Humphrey. For more than 30 years, one full generation, Hubert Humphrey was there: in the presidential politics of his party; in its terrible turmoil over Vietnam and social and racial justice; in the combat between the parties and between the claims of the executive branch and those of Capitol Hill.

And we all heve our mental snapshots . . .a young Mayor Humphrey brashly unceremoniously refusing to let the 1948 Democratic convention ignore its civil-rights obligations . . . an ourspent and outmaneuvered candidate Humphrey making his generous peace with the Kennedy's after the West Virginia drubbing . . . an overwhelmed and humiliated Vice President Humphrey unable to find his true voice or strength in the Johnson years intil it was politically too late . . . a bounched-back 1970s model Hubert Humphrey, in the Senate, in the middle of it again (naturally), being personally as decent and helpful as ever to those who had beaten him in his periodic quests for hinger office.

Those quests became the object of some merriment after a time, and Mr, Humphrey himself joined in the fun, although there was no mistaking the hurt and dissapointment he had endured. But, after-dinner jokes aside, we don't think Mr. Humphrey's unflaging political ambition deserved to be a source of either derision or embarrassment. That is because it is impossible to think of another national political figure who so successfully and benignly merged the personal drive necessary to acquire power with a concern for the impersonal public goals that such power is meant to achieve. Hubert Humphrey was ambitious to use national office well - and for the sake of other people. To our great national misfortune, some politicians transform the hardship they have experienced or witnessed early in life into a quest for personal vindication, clout and comfort via public office. Mr. Humphrey spent 30 years trying to translate that witness and experience into a better life for others. It was his obsession.

So we hail, first, the invincible political ambition of Hubert Humphrey, and move smartly along to another aspect of his career that provokes our admiration and wonder, even though it too has ben a frequent source of complaints: Mr. Humphrey's political longevity. Thirty years near the center of power has a demonstrabel way of bringing out the worst in people. A loss of principle, a growing insensitivity to new or different circumstances, an inability to remember why one is in office at all except to stay there andM eventually, a sclerotic incapacity to grow or learn - surely these are the occupational hazards of decades-long public service. And just as surely none of them ever got Hubert Humphrey. His public career was remarkable precisely because the process of political aging worked so well in his case. He reaminded faithful to basic priciples even as he responded to new social currents and needs; and his adaptation to the "system" - his eventual initiation into the Club itself - was put in the service of his publi goals. It did not, as is so often the case, become a substitute way of life or an alternative to the pursuit of those goals.

It is, course, true that many people, ourselves included, have newly come to doubt the wisdom and merit of much that is being put forth in the name of those liberal Democratic values Mr. Humphrey espoused. So the question needs to be addressed whether the legacy of Hubert Humphrey will decline in value as this perception of the limits of certain kinds of mainline liberal legislation with which he was identified become apparent. We think not. And that is because Mr. Humphrey, at the distance of historical remove, will be recognized not as a man who fiddled around with some of the tired-blood and preposterous interventions in the society and the economy of recent years, but rather as a driving force behind a public commitment to involve government in the creation of a more racially and socially just society - here and abroad .

In a way, he was a victim of his own success, a casualty of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? syndrome. So much is now taken for granted that Hubert Humphrey pioneered that we can afford the luxury of quibbling about the details. In questions of civil rights and economiv security and decent standards of care for the poor, the aged, the ill, Hubert Humphrey was there when the territory was uncharted and the terrain indescribably bleak and lonely. And the same may be said of his early and enduring commitment to improving the life and lot of people abroad. He was a steadfast patron of aid and development and arms-control efforts long before these had gained ho-hum general acceptance and also a man tirelessly in search of ways to extend human freedons and human rights overseas.

Even so, we will not describe him as a great man. That is because the idea of "greatness" at the top of American politics has become too much burdened with connotations of overreaching power, eccentricity and egocentricity and one-way rides to national disaster. It doesn't go with this man of joy and bounce and decency and kindness. For Hubert Humphrey we prefer a phrase that is somehow both more honorable andmore fitting. He was a good man - a good man who did great things.