JOHN G. VENEMAN, who died the other day at the age of 56, was one of the good people in politics. Not goody-goody, mind you, and certainly not one of those figures whose passivity and reluctance to challenge or offend occasionally pass for virtue. Jack Veneman, in fact, was nothing if not "controversial." As a Republican member of the California state legislature in the 1960s and, subsequently, as undersecretary of HEW in the Nixon administration, Mr. Veneman was no stranger to political combat of the most strenuous and even bitter kind. He was not well-loved by the Reagan people in California (a compliment he fully returned), and he was at the center of much of the conflict over social policy during the early Nixon years.

Especially after Mr. Veneman moved onto Nelson Rockefeller's vice presidential staff, his ID tag of "liberal Republican" seemed to be brought out for every newspaper story about him. But what was so interesting and admirable about this man was that he picked and chose his way among the issues, responding to certain ideals and values that led him to different parts of the political spectrum on a variety of issues. He was a "liberal" or a "conservative" in only the most superficial, journalistic name-tag sense. He did what he thought was right.

Mr. Veneman came from a California rancher- businessman background where a man could be forgiven for not exactly resonating to the needs of distant urban blacks and other minorities. His eventual commitment to the amelioration of racial and economic wrongs struck us as being greatly more impressive than the similar, but rote, reactions of so many of the politicians representing districts in which the beneficiaries of social programs had political clout. As a state legislator, he got into some awful scraps about Gov. Reagan's California programs; and when he was at HEW he worked hard, quietly, fiercely and without any lust for headlines or for power-for-its-own sake or for the rest of that ego-baggage that is so familiar in this town.

Jack Veneman was a man whose political ideas were born of independence of mind, civility and true conviction. For the brief time he was here, he graced Washington.