A murmur of surprise swept the closed-door Democratic caucus last week when patriarchal Sen. John Stennis, a pillar of presidential prerogative, rose to oppose the nomination of Kenneth Adelman to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The unexpected defection of Stennis from President Reagan's choice shows the self-imposed misery enveloping the White House and the State Department over a good nomination gone sour. Chances for the Senate to overturn the Foreign Relations Committee's unfavorable verdict on Adelman are only about 50-50. Coupled with the smashing 3-to-1 House Foreign Affairs Committee approval of the nuclear freeze resolution, to be followed by certain House passage, the administration's handling of the Adelman-freeze challenge shows dangerous capacity for self-destruction.

From the start, Reagan's top advisers trivialized the appointment of Adelman, a serious diplomat well- equipped to handle ACDA. These same advisers toyed with the freeze, an emotion-powered issue that finds its origin in the peace movements sweeping Europe and only briefly blunted by the German election.

All but ignored in the selection of Adelman was Secretary of State George Shultz. Shultz consequently has no big stake in his confirmation by the Senate. Adelman's first champion was his boss, U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. When she suggested him to national security adviser William P. Clark, Clark snapped up the idea. But Clark suddenly weakened when Adelman botched the first day of his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, partly because he was not adequately forewarned and forearmed by State Department aides.

The trivialization of the nomination of Adelman, who one White House insider told us is now without top- level champions "except Ronald Reagan himself," has led to a spate of damaging rumors that recall Anne Burford's recent tribulations. Administration officials are quietly eyeing other possibilities for the ACDA post: former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, named by Reagan to head the MX missile commission, and Max Kampelman, Reagan's choice as ambassasador to the European Security Conference, to name two.

More worrisome is the way that trivialization has played into the hands of the nuclear-freezers, fueling their outrageous charges that Reagan really does not understand the gravity of the nuclear issue and toys with the great questions of nuclear war. Protecting Reagan's rearmament program is the real objective in the battle to defeat the nuclear freeze campaign, whose first target, cloaked in confusing rhetoric, is unilateral U.S. arms control. At stake are political pressures forcing Congress to embrace unilateralism, based on the exceedingly remote chance of the Soviets' following the American lead some time in the future.

Reagan is well aware of the danger of such misplaced trust and hope. But he and his advisers have failed to understand that the attack on Adelman and the drive for the nuclear freeze are sustained by the same phenomenon: the administration's lack of political credibility in dealing with the transcendent nuclear issue in any of its manifestations.

Copyright (c) 1983, Field Enterprises, Inc.