KURT WALDHEIM reveals an unexpected masochistic streak, among other qualities, in announcing a readiness to accept a third five-year term as secretary-general of the United Nations. It is, in the common phrase, a thankless job, and we have felt in moments of aggravation that a willingness to serve is in itself virtually evidence of unfitness. As Groucho Marx said in another context, he would not want to join any club that would have him for a member.

But why should the secretary-generalship be considered a thankless job, one that ought to go to some suitably self-effacing international civil servant with the skills to make himself palatable to the world's principal power blocs? Why should it not be considered instead a post that offers an individual of spirit and vision an unparalleled opportunity to promote the goals that the members of the organization insist they share?

"Neutrality" is now commonly considered a qualification for the post. Why not fairness? Rather than accept someone who can claim to be thoroughly familiar with the international machinery, why not seek out someone with a deep desire to use it to advance the purposes of the U.N. Charter? A secretary-general is often expected to have, or to express, views that offend no member, or at least no member other than South Africa and Israel. But suppose the test were that he or or she could express a point of view that rose above the usual quarrels and offered a new and individual insight into the problems that come before the world body? The capacity to reflect the views of the members ought to be supplemented by a capacity to contribute to the collective chemistry.

Most of the time the job has been sought by politicians who are out of pocket at home, or waiting for the prime minister's office to open up. The governments that do the voting evidently feel safest choosing one of their own. We are under no illusions that there is any strong impulse anywhere to change the system this time. It has to be said, however, that the quality of person available to be secretary-general is both one of the symptoms and one of the causes of the unnecessarily low state of the United Nations' effectiveness and reputation. We say this not to be harsh on Mr. Waldheim. But, perhaps foolishly, we remain tantalized by the notion that the United Nations could be something other, something better, than it is now.