Ernest Lefever rightly claimed to be "blameless of the charges and innuendoes against my integrity and my compassion." But he was also correct in asking the president to withdraw from consideration his nomindation as assistant secretary of state for human rights.

For the nomination had become entangled in a viper's nest of ideological conflict. A disentangling effort has to precede clear judgment as to the right person for the rights job.

At the root of the confusion lies the distinction between communist governments, which are said to be "totalitarian," and right-wing governments, which are said to be "authoritarian." Backers of Lefever insist the distinction is absolute.

"Totalitarian" regimes, they claim, are beyond reform and, therefore, deserve relentless attacks on transgressions against human rights. "Authoritarian" regimes, by contrast, are supposed to be subject to change. Hence a more sympathetic attitude can force their better behavior.

In practice, however, that neat dichotomy falls apart. A more totalitarian regime than that in China under Mao Tse-tung has rarely, if ever, existed. But sweeping change distinguishes China since the death of Mao. Poland provides another case of a "totalitarian" system yielding dramatic evolution toward more humane treatment of individual citizens.

Conversely, the picture is equally muddy. In Spain, Portugal and Greece to be sure, "authoritarian" governments gave way to more liberal regimes. But how much has Paraguay changed recently? Or Guatemala?

The difference that counts lies between governments disposed to be friendly to the United States and those that tilt toward this country's prime rival, the Soviet Union. Obvious reasons tell Washington to be more lenient toward pro-American governments than toward hostile governments. These reasons are certainly not trivial. But neither are they moral, still less absolute.

Similarly with a supposed polarity in tactics. According to some, quiet diplomacy lies at one end of the spectrum and public disapproval at the other. Backers of Lefever insisted that he stood for "quiet diplomacy" and that that approach had already begun to yield dividends.

Opponents of Lefever asserted that "quiet diplomacy" was, in fact, an excuse for ducking the issue. Among those most impressive in making that charge was Jacobo Timmerman, a newspaper editor who was exiled from Argentina after having been arrested, tortured and jailed for months. Timmerman claims that quiet diplomacy as applied to Argentina was "surrender" to torture, mass murder and gross prejudice.

But times change and circumstances alter cases. I met Timmerman two years ago and was enormously impressed by his dignity and humanity. The personal attacks launched against him recently seem to be as shameful as those directed against Lefever. It has to be said, however, that at the time Timmerman favored quiet diplomacy in dealing with Argentina. At his urging, indeed, the American Jewish Committee, which had given him an award, decided -- against its own interest -- to muffle the publicity.

An almost ludicrous example of the same inconsistency occurred at the White House the other day. President Reagan and Vice President Bush received, with photographers present, the wife of the imprisoned Soviet dissident Anatoly Scharansky. The Scharansky case is an explosive affair in the Soviet Union, and it took courage for the president to do what he did. The stakes were big, and the risks not small. But the White House press office, in speaking of an event that was like a red flag to the Moscow bull, described it as an example of -- you guessed it -- "quiet diplomacy."

As those examples suggest, sure guides and clean rules do not exist for the diplomacy of human rights. It is quintessentially a matter of judgment and of feel. Those with years of experience in the field and a professional commitment to human rights -- whether they come from the right as Lefever did, or from the liberal side as was the case with Jimmy Carter's appointment, Patricia Derian -- are apt to be unbending in their views. Derian did, after all, alienate several governments of importance to the United States. Lefever did, after all, alienate most of the Foreign Relations Committee, which voted against his nomination 13 to 4.

Balance, much more than experience in the field, is the critical quality. The human rights job calls for sensitivity to this country's interest in both strategic advantages and in its good name in the world. It requires great skill at translating those fine judgments into negotiations. It involves trade-offs and even manipulation. To me, that suggests a disciplined, professional diplomat.