THE PRESIDENTS original response to the contentions set off by the Andrew Young resignation was silence and public detachment from a progression of events that Mr. Carter was responsible for in all the important meanings of that word: he was ultimately both the source of those events and the man, above all others, who had an obligation and a capacity to defuse their divisive social potential. But Mr. Carter let Ambassador Young define and describe what had happened, noting only his own regret at the affair, and kept a discreet and even ostentatious distance from it all as the predictable recriminations between various black and Jewish groups got under way. This was unfortunate.

It is a further misfortune that, when at least Mr. Carter directly addressed the trouble, or at least its shriller and more painful manifestations, he did so in a strangely unsatisfying way. To hear the president's speech at Emory University on Thursday, you would have thought he was talking about things in which he had played no part, that he had volunteered his services as an outside arbitrator in a crazy dispute of concern to him only in that it might get out of hand and the combatants would do each other or themselves some genuine harm.

The president expressed his approval (was this ever the issue?) of public argument: "Every American has the right to debate all public issues." However, he had already also stipulated the equally obvious warning: "But we must not permit diversity to degenerate into division." Jews and blacks, he went on to point out, had much in common and should not bloody each other or forget their shared American heritage and interest. Not a word in it you could object to -- if the president were, as he seemed to assume, a concerned outside observer. He is, however, something else. And he has, accordingly, a much more substantial and important contribution to make to healing this division.

What the president has it in his power to give is an accounting of what happened and an assumption of presidential responsibility for those events. He needs to tell the disputing parties not that they shouldn't dispute because they might hurt themselves and the country, but that the declared source of their dispute is false: the "Jews" did not "get" Andrew Young. Mr. Young resigned because the secretary of state personally felt that he -- Mr. Vance -- could no longer work with Andrew Young after what had happened, and Mr. Carter made the decision that this must be. As long as the president declines to do this, his admonitions to Jews and blacks to not let their differences get nasty will have a hollow ring to them.