The press secretary to the president of the United States has one of the most thankless jobs in government. When he does everything right, it is no more than is expected of him. When he does anything less, he is generally in hot water with the press or the president or both.

Nevertheless, until Lyn Nofziger came along, there was no record of anybody's ever turning down the job, which, with all its headaches, is one of the most stimulating in goverment, and uniquely influential. Also, there's the fame.

Some political writers are still a little skeptical about Nofziger's explanation that he likes life in California and has already had enough of Washington. Would his reluctance have been overcome, however if he could have been certain of having the impressive status that Jody Powell has enjoyed under Jimmy Carter?

At this stage, it appears that Powell's successor is not going to have unlimited direct access to the president or, like the incumbent secretary, be a power in his own right, independent of the other White House officials.

Nofziger says he was not consulted on how the White House operations should be organized under the incoming administration. Out of long experience, though, he offered some excellent advice: "I don't think you can do the job of press secretary unless you have access to the president."

Since Nofziger's retirement, a kind of Rube Goldberg arrangement has been set up, with an East Coast spokesman working out of the Reagan transition headquarters in Washington and a West Coast spokesman operating out of Los Angeles. Neither of these substitutes has the experience, prestige or political savvy of Nofziger. Their role is so inferior that they report to Robert Carrick, a public relations man, who in turn reports to White House counselor Edwin Meese, who in turn reports to Reagan.

This, of course, is seen as a stop-gap arrangement, but it confirms a growing surmise that the next press secretary is not going to be cast in a star role. There has even been talk about having four associate secretaries, supposedly expert in special fields, dividing up the responsibilities of the No. 1 secretary.

Carter's first appointment after his 1976 victory was that of Jody Powell.

He has never had reason to regret it. A number of other early Carter appointees have fallen by the wayside, but Powell, both as spokesman and adviser, has earned the trust the president placed in him.

In the process, he also earned the respect of all branches of the media; they knew he had the absolute confidence of his boss and could thus speak with absolute authority. The last thing the press wants is a secretary who has to go through others to communicate with the president. There have been several in the past, and they have been looked upon as relative flunkies.

Some of the younger members of the Washington press corps regard Powell as the most effective secretary they have known, but there are at least two others who rate with him: Jim Hagerty, who served Dwight Eisenhower, and Steve Early, who spoke for Franklin D. Roosevelt. All three reported to nobody but the president and provided shrewd advice on policy as well as on public relations. In the short, they were taken seriously by the press and public because it was clear that the chief executive himself did so.

It's been 25 years since Eisenhower almost died from a heart attack, but many still remember what the former president said to his doctor: "Tell Jim to take over and make the decisions -- and handle the story."

Hagerty later denied that Eisenhower meant he should take over the government, but that's pretty much what he did all the same. Even Richard Nixon, then the vice president, and William Rogers, then the attorney general, checked everything with Hagerty during Ike's long convalescence.