Although C. William Verity's enthusiasm for U.S.-Soviet trade was known at the White House before he was named secretary of commerce, nobody there seems to have read his past comments that American Jewish demands for Soviet emigration ''can never be satisfied'' and are regarded by the Kremlin as ''interference with domestic affairs.''
Those eight-year-old comments suggest the retired industrialist's Senate confirmation may not be so smooth as advertised. While the organized Jewish community is not opposing him, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews is. Add in right-wing hostility, and Verity could be eating past words before his inevitable confirmation.
Picking the former head of Armco Steel points to what's afoot in the Reagan administration's fading months. His appointment fits the new primacy of improved U.S.-Soviet relations. Not only has Verity plugged ceaselessly for de'tente, but he has rejected the administration's policy of linkage between trade and Soviet behavior.
In fact, he weighed in against linkage when that issue split the Carter administration. He said the Soviets were ''offended'' by theJackson-Vanik amendment's restrictions on U.S.-Soviet trade linked to Jewish emigration, and he called for their removal. ''Let us also remember that they regard such efforts as interference with domestic affairs,'' Verity wrote.
In a 1979 interview with The Washington Star noting that year's record high of 50,000 Jews permitted to leave the Soviet Union, he contended the United States bowed to Jewish pressure linking emigration to trade. ''The American Jewish community can never be satisfied on this matter,'' he said. ''Their desires will ever be escalating.'' Soon after, the Kremlin closed the doors. Jewish emigration dropped to 914 in 1986, and under Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost it has risen to 4,218 this year.
If the White House staff was unware of Verity's words, it is understandable. Verity did not appear on the commerce secretary short list compiled by Robert Tuttle's personnel office. His name came from the White House East Wing -- from Nancy Reagan, who has become the archangel of de'tente. In turn, according to one administration official, the suggestion to the first lady was made by her friend and former aide, Michael Deaver.
Advocates of controlling export of technology to the Soviet Union were appalled. ''I find it a very strange appointment,'' Zbigniew Brzezinski told us -- his views as President Carter's national security adviser were opposed by Verity a decade ago.
Verity, former head of the U.S.-Soviet Trade Council, belongs to the de'tente-minded American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations. Harvard Professor Marshall Goldman, a leading de'tentist, says Verity ''has a fetish for Soviet trade.'' Fetish or not, his views are economically grounded. Armco's multibillion-dollar plans in the Soviet Union were killed by the Carter administration after the invasion of Afghanistan.
Amid current assaults on ''privatized'' diplomacy, Verity fits the tradition of American entrepreneurs from Armand Hammer to Dwayne Andreas in dealing directly with the Kremlin's masters. In 1984, after meeting with senior Soviet officials including Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov, Verity returned to Washington to submit Soviet ''suggestions'' to Robert McFarlane.
While Verity's trade delegation was in Moscow, ex-NSC director Brent Snowcroft -- carrying a secret Reagan letter to Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko -- was left cooling his heels in a hotel. ''That was their way of telling the president he's just bad news,'' Verity said upon returning. Actually, the attempt to establish another Soviet channel was scotched by the State Department.
A month later, Verity was one of the American industrialists rubbing shoulders with Soviet trade bureaucrats on the dais at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. When a State Department official blamed the Kremlin for deteriorated U.S.-Soviet relations, Verity accused him of ''very poor judgment'' and praised the Russians for not responding.
The record is so full that even administration officials wonder how the president could appoint him. The answer is that Reagan probably sees Verity as a fellow septuagenarian, who frequently appeared on guest lists for White House state dinners put together by Deaver and who headed the commission on private initiative that tickled the president's fancy.
Sooner or later, the gap on linkage must be resolved. Verity could truly eat his words, or the administration might buy his dictum that ''trade is trade.'' If neither happens and the old industrialist goes his own way out of control, the president can repent in leisure his hasty appointment.