AS THE SENATE takes up the nomination of Griffin Bell to be Attorney General, the pending question is not whether he is the ideal candidate but whether, as the President's choice, he ought to be confirmed. The distinction matters. We would hardly call Mr. Bell - as Mr. Carter did - "the best qualified person" in the country for the post. Indeed, Mr. Bell himself last fall suggested several people whom he considered well qualified. Mr. Carter may have settled on Mr. Bell, a long-time friend, as the one among all reasonable choices with whom he felt most comfortable and compatible.

This emphasis on personal affinity between a President and the nation's top legal officer is rather discomfiting. Yet when compared with others, such as Robert Kennedy and John Mitchell, who came to the office by a similar route, Mr. Bell does have several points to his credit. Some are virtues of omission: he has not been the President's campaign manager. And it is not impossible to believe that he does want to run the Justice Department in an apolitical way. Then there are the positive points: he does have judicial experience and is far better acquainted with constitutional law and the problems of the legal system than either Mr. Kennedy or Mr. Mitchell was when appointed to the post.

Mr. Bell's record, specifically on civil rights matters, is of course what his critics find most troubling. The dispute is not over where he stands today, but over where he has been in the past. It is true that, as an aide to Georgia Gov. Vandiver in the late 1950's and in dealing with desegregation cases on the circuit court, Mr. Bell did favor slow progress. By the benchmarks of today, and from the viewpoint of northern liberals, he seems to have advocated too little too late. Yet in evaluating what he did, it is essential to remember where he was. And we are impressed by the testimony of a number of Southern civil rights activists, black and white, that in the context of that region at that time, Mr. Bell was a constructive influence.

Thus, in our view, his civil rights record is not at all disqualifying. Moreover, in other areas Mr. Bell's statements have been very commendable. He has shown a refreshing sensitivity to problems of civil liberties. He clearly recognizes what kinds of changes need to be made at the FBI and seems determined to supervise that agency as closely as necessary. He wants to sharpen the Justice Department's crime-fighting abilities, improve the delivery of legal services and select better judges and U.S. attorneys. His one personnel announcement so far, that of Circuit Judge Wade H. McCree Jr. to be Solicitor General, is a high-quality choice.As we said the other day, it may be that Mr. Bell - far from being too political - is not yet sensitive enough to be political intricacies involved in every aspect of Justice Department business. But he seems to be a quick student whose practical education has already begun. Moreover, he is a man of substantial intelligence and staunch personal integrity. The nomination should be confirmed.