Secretary of State George Shultz leads a hard life. He has to deal with arms negotiations, Lebanon, terrorism, Nicaragua and even Caspar Weinberger and his deputy in all things ominous, Richard Perle. So it cannot come as good news to him that he is, very much without his knowledge, becoming my hero. I may commission a George Shultz poster for my office.

I first started to go a bit weak in the knees about Shultz when I learned that from time to time he organized seminars at his home. He would decide that he needed to know more about something and so he would ask a few people over for a discussion. Readings were assigned in advance, and Shultz always did his. For a busy man, this is an awesome feat -- as awesome as a secretary of state conceding that he does not know it all.

Now Shultz has outdone himself and I nearly swoon. In a wonderful display of both passion and principle, he told the administration's bloodhounds that his first lie-detector test would be his last. "The minute in this government I am told that I am not trusted is the day I leave," he said. Unlike similar displays by his predecessor, Alexander Haig, Shultz's worked. Apparently, it helps when principle, not perks, is the issue.

Shultz seemes to have two reasons for opposing polygraphs. The first is that he says, and many experts agree, that the machines occasionally turn truth into lies and, of course, lies into truth. Since a government career can hinge on a single answer (suspicion will always follow a "wrong" answer) an error can be disastrous. It is as hard to prove you are not a traitor as it is that you have stopped beating your wife.

Shultz's second objection, the apparent cause of his passion, is that he simply would not have his patriotism questioned. Polygraphs do that, which is precisely why the administration orginally required government officials with access to sensitive information to have their patriotic temperatures routinely taken. Now the polygraphs will be used only "in conjunction with other investigative and security procedures in espionage cases."

Even so, the machines will hardly stay cold. In recent months, catching spies has become Washington's one growth industry. They seem to fall from the trees. Many have been arrested, some have been convicted, but common sense tells you that some are still doing business at the same old stand. So common sense would also seem to require the widespread use of polygraphs. After all, they are supposed to be able to ferret out the traitorous. But some experts think they mostly ferret out the nervous and the anxious, with the needle not moving at all for those gifted in the black art of lying. Expert opinion as usual is divided. Maybe the experts ought to be polygraphed.

Shultz's heroics, while certainly appreciated, would have been of the nearly mythological variety if he had pushed the issue a bit further -- if he had explicitly predicated his resignation threat on policy rather than personal objections. After all, he is not the only government official who wants neither his honesty nor his patriotism questioned. It is the little guys and not secretaries of state who could have their careers trashed by the nervous skip of a totally pure heart. Still, results are what matters. The polygraph program has been substantially limited. Twice now -- the last time in 1981 -- Shultz has pulled the plug on the polygraphs. Rambo, eat your heart out.

But journalists, while caring about people and careers, also care about journalism -- especially the free practice thereof. If anyone thinks that sooner or later the government would not use polygraph machines in an attempt to find officials who leak to the press, then he knows nothing about either people or government. The result would be a selective punishment of dissenting officials, of those who leaked embarrassing information as opposed to those who leaked the flattering kind.

Whatever his reason, George Shultz has done the right thing. In an administration of policy wonks and junk bond junkies, he is a romantic. Twice in one week he waxed Wagnerian, first fulminating his contempt for terrorists and later his passion for principle. His life is hard and his challenge awesome, but I am forced to add to his burden. He is my hero.