As the only departing member of the Carter Cabinet to return Hamilton Jordon's "staff evaluation," Griffin Bell managed to say something and nothing about it at the same time: "From what I've read in the form, there isn't anything inappropriate." Although on the defensive, Bell tries to insinuate a real, if diluted, notion of rectitude by using "appropriate," the term that official Washington pushes out front like a crowd shield whenever someone has to sound moral in public.

Last year, Jimmy Carter found brother Billy's anti-Semitic remarks "inapropriate," but to what and why, we never were told -- the word floated free in a moral vacuum. Earlier this year, President carter told a reporter that he would give Richard Nixon "apropriate briefings on what has been done in our negotiations with the people of China," but if one had asked whether "appropriate" referred to Nixon's ethical character -- as it once would have -- the question itself would have been considered, well inappropriate.

Although it is suffering an undignified death, "appropriate" comes from a long, noble tradition in rhetoric, and it assumes a linerating bond etween the good character of the speaker and the world around him. He suited his style to his audience and his subject, never pandering to one or distorting the other. The governing principle was called decorum, and it included far more than politemess to superiors or conservative dress in Congress or courtroom. Indeed, if one's subject were low or unworthy, decorum allowed for harshness and even invective, as the great satrists show us.

Now, "appropriate" is not simply losing its meaning (as "disinterested" has); rather, it is perversely misused in an attempt to connote propriety, even as moral standards are ignored or abandoned. In a memo to Richard Helms, then of the CIA, the author of the infamous Huston plan recommended that a group be formed for "Domestic Intelligence" in violation of the CIA charter, and that it "establish such . . . procedures as it believes appropriate to the implementation of the duties set forth above"; copies went to Richard Nixon and H.R. Haldeman. In another memo that the Watergate hearings brought to light, Haldeman told John Dean that he and Chuck Colson should get together and come up with a way to leak the appropriate information" about a Howard Huges loan to Larry O'Brien. Tom Huston, of course, would have been closer to the truth to say "effective, if illegal"; Haldeman needed a verbal cover for "damaging" or "potentially libelous."

Nixon himself tried to color obstruction of justice with a moral hue when he told the nation that, after learning of the break-in he "immediately ordered an investigation by appropriate government authorities." This finesounding, dynamic statement was later proved a lie when the rot beneath that "appropriate" became a stench.

Likewise, Lyndon Johnson knew he was lying about the Pueblo incident when he told a press conference: "If there is any indication that we have acted improperly, or have violated their boundaries, we will take appropriate action." In another context, LBJ used "appropriate action" to mean resumption of bombing in North Vietnam; this flat equation of brutal power and righteousness also characterizes the style of Henry Kissinger.

Earlier this year, Jimmy Carter strongly challenged our jaded attitudes toward decorum when he invited Richard Nixon to a state dinner for Deng Xiaoping. To Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), practical politics supplied the standard; he found it "appropriate to invite the man who made the initial overture to China." Rep. John Anderson (R-Ill.) rightly drew on the dying meaning of the word when he related it to character and situation; he did not "feel, given the circumstances in which he left office, that it was appropriate for him to attend a state function of this kind."

The word file at Merriam-Webster's Dictionary holds scores of entries for "appropriate," but very few from politicians -- their usage is too vague for the lexicographer. Among Webster's citations a few howlers (a doctor writing that "patients may die of inappropriate treatment"; another saying that many elderly are "warehoused inappropriately"), but two cards clearly indicate how far downhill the word has gone. In 1937, an editor noted that "a nice question awaiting settlement is whether fit or fitting (or both) are the true syns of appropriate ." By 1953, O. A. Johnson had no doubt that the issue was resolved; writing in the "Journal of Philosophy," he proclaimed, "Certain types of action . . . are good because they represent a way of life which, to borrow a mode of expression in vogue among 18th-century moralist, is "fitting" or "appropriate" to human beings."

A person who lets his behavior be governed by poll results would find "mode" and "vogue" perfectly appropriate diction; to the rest of us human beings, it would be pathetic.