ELLIOT Richardson, who died on New Year's Eve at age 79, will be remembered as the attorney general who put country before party or personal ambition when he resigned rather than follow President Richard Nixon's instructions to fire a special prosecutor. While that single act of refusal to dismiss Archibald Cox earned Mr. Richardson a special place in the nation's history, his service to the country was much broader and, ultimately, as valuable as his refusal to obey a destructive order.

Few Americans have served the national government with distinction on so many public fronts. During the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Mr. Richardson had the titles of secretary of health, education and welfare, secretary of defense, secretary of commerce, undersecretary of state and ambassador to Great Britain. He emerged from each presidential assignment undefeated by the bureaucracy he encountered--a rare achievement. Indeed, it was while at the helm of these massive and complex federal departments that he earned his reputation as a superb administrator and decisive manager of people.

It was an unusual career path for a lifelong Republican and descendant of earliest New England settlers. There were stints in the private practice of law and turns at political office--he was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and Massachusetts attorney general. He was a Republican partisan, firmly in the moderate wing of his party. It was the Republican Party that drew him to the staff of Massachusetts Sen. Leverett Saltonstall in 1953 and brought him to Washington in the Eisenhower administration. But he leaves behind a different GOP--a party that has largely abandoned the kind of moderation he stood for. Politics in America is all the poorer for it.

Federal service was what he did best. It was one of the challenges he loved most. Through an extraordinary capacity for hard work and the unshakeable integrity that distinguished him throughout his public service career Elliot Richardson helped set the highest standards for public service.