A leader of a major union remarked, while at lunch at this paper recently, that he hoped the next Democratic candidate for president would have better policies than Jimmy Carter. What had Carter done that was so bad for labor? Well, the union chief replied, it wasn't so much what Carter had done, but what he hadn't done as compared with his recent predecessors. Ah, the Nixon years, he said, those were the "glory days."

The Nixon years? Not the Great Society or the New Frontier? What about the Nixon administration--besides the disgrace that Watergate brought to the Republicans--could gladden the heart of a liberal labor leader?

Well, you might want to remember that it was the Nixon administration that raised Social Security by 20 percent in 1972-- and then locked that improvement in place with automatic cost- of-living adjustments that more than compensated for inflation over the last decade. Those reforms sharply reduced poverty among the nation's elderly and gave all Americans a kind of protection for their old age that no private pension can ensure.

President Nixon was also the first American president to propose a federally guaranteed income for all American families as well as the aged and disabled. He didn't call it a guaranteed income, but that's what it was. His family assistance plan--and the accompanying plan that would have ensured

health insurance to all low-in come families--never made it

through Congress. But part of

his proposals survived as the

Supplemental Security Income

program, which now ensures a

minimum income--adjusted for

inflation--to all aged and se verely disabled people

throughout the country.

Early in his admin istration, Richard

Nixon vowed to "put

an end to hunger in America." He

came close to doing it. Legislation

that he proposed extended the

food stamp program nationwide,

liberalized eligibility and benefits

and ensured that, at least until re cent years, benefits kept up with

food prices. Thus was born the

first--and still only--welfare pro gram in the United States that

provides help to all the poor.

Like President Reagan, Rich ard Nixon had his "new federalism" plan. But the Nixon plan was far more to the liking of state and local governments. It brought with it not only general revenue sharing but a host of other grant-in-aid programs to stimulate urban renewal, mass transit, community health programs and other social services. The administration's "manpower revenue sharing" proposals were transformed by Congress into the nationwide CETA system, which gave states and localities control over billions of dollars for job and training programs. With the stimulus from these programs, state and local government employment burgeoned.

The federal bureaucracy also flourished during the Nixon years. The end of the Vietnam War caused Pentagon employment to shrink, but the losses were compensated for by growth in domestic agencies and budgets. Federal salaries became sufficiently competitive with universities and the private sector to attract to civil service substantial numbers of young economists, scientists, lawyers and other professionals. These recruits found plenty of challenging work as the federal government rapidly in its involvement in almost every sector of the economy.

The minimum wage rose steadily (although Nixon delayed one increase with a veto). New protections for construction workers and miners (including the generous "black lung" disability program) were put into law in 1969 and 1970. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was set up and quickly earned a reputation for meddlesome regulation.

The Environmental Protection Agency was set up and given a remarkably free rein by the White House. With the agency's help, Congress wrote ambitious laws to reduce air and water pollution and control the dissemination of dangerous chemicals and pesticides. The Marine Mammal Protection Act became law.

Other agencies gained new powers to improve the nation's health, education and social welfare. A National Cancer Policy was launched. Health maintenance organizations received new federal support. Grants were extended to low-income college students, and student loan programs were liberalized. Low-income housing programs grew rapidly, and child nutrition programs were expanded. Aid for the arts and humanities flourished. Much of this was Congress' doing--but it happened on Nixon's watch and without his veto.

When inflation rose sharply in the summer of 1971, Richard Nixon didn't fiddle around with balanced budgets, tight money or other conservative remedies. He slapped on wage and price controls. "I am now a Keynesian," he had cheerfully remarked a few months earlier.

All this liberality didn't come cheap. By 1975, federal domestic spending claimed more than 15 percent of the GNP, up from 11 percent in 1970. The biggest gainers were the entitlement programs. Social Security didn't get into financial difficulty 30 years ago, as President Reagan likes to remember; its troubles started with the 1972 amendments. Since Richard Nixon left office, his successors have been struggling to pay the bill for his generosity. Still, it's an admirable record of social accomplishment. Lyndon Johnson must have been envious.