YOU DON'T HAVE TIME to hear a recounting of all the intricate steps by which a recent decision was reached not to make a man called Marshall Smith acting commissioner of education. They involved some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Vice President Mondale, some White House staff people, HEW, a book that was written several years ago, and a lot of shoddy dealing. That last is the memorable part.

Mr. Smith, who is assistant commissioner for policy studies, was chosen for the temporary post by HEW Secretary Califano. But then the squall, or more properly, the squalor began. Evidently charges of racism against Mr. Smith were made on the basis of his work as a researcher on Christopher Jencks's book "Inequality," published in 1972. The breathtakingly false charge was circulated that the book itself was racist and that the association of Mr. Smith [in fact, an ardent integrationist] with it was disqualifying. Failing to persuade Mr. Smith's antagonists that this was wrong, the White House and Mondale people subsequently made a strong pitch to HEW Undersecretary Hale Champion that the nomination be withdrawn because the Black Caucas members might otherwise vote against the creation of that about-to-be-hatched bureaucratic turkey, a Department of Education. HEW resisted. In time Mr. Smith himself -- not wishing to create disharmony and trouble, it is said -- withdrew.

The battles that people choose to fight are interesting. So too are the battles they choose to avoid -- the intellectual and ethical corners they are willing to cut. It is not Mr. Smith or Mr. Champion of Whom this can be noted, but rather those persons in the administration responsible for these events. Much of the tugging and hauling occurred outside of public view, and the reports from the participants have not all been clear or candid. But one clear theme has emerged. It is that some people high up in the Carter administration are indifferent to the ominous implications their behavior had for the department they are so eager to create. "Scurrilous," one of these officias said, by way of describing the Jencks book. The conclusions were unacceptable. Et cetera. It did not seem to occur to him that this imposition of a political test on the findings of an academic researcher was an axample of precisely the kind of interference the opponents of a federal education department fear most.

Mr. Smith's integrity and that of Christopher Jencks remain intact, even though both have been maligned in this affair. The government could do something to repair its own integrity, which did get dirtied, by saying, out loud and for the record, that it was and is a libel to accuse either of these men of racism in any way, shape or form.