IF IT HADN'T BEEN for George Wallace, we would never have learned to spell "Chihuahua." And that is already something, so we are grateful. The reason for our belated achievement is a wish to quote the Alabama governor's wonderful characterization of The Post in a Sunday Outlook article - and then to add what he will not doubt consider a few predictable yipes. Gov. Wallace, summing up his life in public office, had this to say: "One of the reasons, I suppose, that I have had such a long political career is that every time I finished a campaign and sat down to rest here would come The Post, barking at my feet and sinking its little Chihuahua teeth into my ankles. My friends thought my socks were made of seersucker."

Did you ever see a pointy-headed Chihuahua? It's a terrible sight to behold - worse even than seersucker socks - and a pack of them in full cry is more than almost anyone can bear to watch for long. But never mind - here we come. We have, so to speak, a bone to pick with Gov. Wallace, and it is this: In his interesting appraisal of his life and times in politics he goes well beyond an ordinary touching up of his portrait when he asserts that his alleged preoccupation with race was just a figment of the critics' overheated imagination. Thus: "Much of the press, not least the Chihuahuas of The Post, professed to see something racist and ugly in my espousal of relief and rescue for the middle class and in their swelling response to my attacks on their abandonment." Fancy that. How do you suppose such a wrongheaded notion got around?

We won't be coy about it. Gov. Wallace is right when he says that the pressures he brought to bear on our national politics were distinctive and important; and he is justified in crowing about his role in awakening both national parties to the cares and concerns and legitimate grievances of millions of middle-class Americans. But it is utterly false - and because it is so false, breathtaking in its audacity - to pretend as Gov. Wallace now does that his campaigns and purposes were always free of racial bias and ugly antiblack fervor. That was their original motor. That was the source of the roar and awful gush of fumes they emitted, and the signal was an unambiguous, unmistakable one. Mr. Wallace built his early constituency and fueled his prospects on a cynical suggestion that he could and would reverse the trend toward fulfilling the promise of full constitutional rights for black people. And his pretense now that he was about something else is almost as cynical as that earlier demagoguing was.

The debt that is owed to George Wallace is for having compelled other politicans to face up to their own shortsightedness and complacency. He threw into stark relief the outlines of a constituency that others had been ignoring and he made issues of subjects that others had figured lay outside the realm of proper political concern. And his success obliged those other politicians to address both the Wallace constituency and the Wallace issues without adopting the discredited Wallace racial line . In that sense, Mr. Wallace made a valuable, if indirect and inadvertent, contribution to better politics. And he also demonstrated exemplary courage and spirit in his battle to come back from the cruel assassination attempt against him in 1972. For these things we hail George Wallace as he, at least temporarily, suspends his career. We hope he won't mind getting this modest amount of praise from the folks in Washington who ruined his socks.