WE REALIZE THAT it was America we were all admonished to say something nice about every day, not the president. But here, in case you have gotten out of the habit, is something nice about Jimmy Carter: He is a crummy ethnic politician, heavy handed beyond imagining, an absolute washout as a cynical wheeler-dealer in last-name politics. To what we regard as Mr. Carter's eternal credit, he does it so vulgarly and awkwardly and badley that it almost doesn't matter that he does it at all.

"Almost," of course, is the key word. Sleaze-wise, a grateful nation could probably have lived without the president's demeaning assurance that if the Sons of Italy couldn't get Attorney General Civiletti to give their judgeship recommendations a proper "hearing," "you can come directly to me." The most notable time anyone can straight to him, of course, concerned a different kind of Justice Department nomination - the David Marston-Congressman Eilberg affair. But it should have been enough to raise the danger signs. And especially on the part of a president who has made such a big deal out of unpolitical appointments, the offer looked politically franctic. Finally, anyone who has witnessed the slow but steady recovery of the Justice Department from its Watergate low, will hope Mr. Carter's exuberance and evidently overwhelming desire to please politically were just that - and not a true reflection of his attitude toward the attorney general and the attorney general's role in helping to select judges.

Actually, like a lot else about the Baltimore journey, the unsubtle ethnic wooing was to politics more or less what painting by the numbers is to art. Not to get too awfully earnest about it, these little one-day highly photographed emblem trips are beginning to look worse than what they were instituted to replace. Surely it is an offensive and unwarranted put-down of those very Americans he is setting out to woo, for Mr. Carter to indulge in these image-making, picture-taking games. The point is not that a president doesn't need a strong and vital image to be a successful leader - he does. The point is that the image Mr. Carter seems to be working on so hard is not the one he needs.

People don't want to see news clips of Mr. Carter out eating ethnic food and praising trains and heating equipment and the rest. They want to see news clips of Mr. Carter, if they're going to see them, at his desk, jacket off and sleeves rolled up against the heat, working. If he wants to be heard issuing memorable statements they should sound more or less like this: Get me Alfred Kahn, Get me George Meany, Get me King Khalid, What the hell do you mean, it just went up four points? (This last, could apply to almost anything, and in image terms would be pure gold.) If Jimmy Carter wants to play Boss, it should be as the presidential kind, not the kind that went out of fashiong with Boss Tweed.