Eleanor Holmes Norton, in a speech celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, said yesterday that any current controversy over the use of affirmative action is being generated by politicians who prefer to "exploit the existing puzzlement and concern over affirmative action rather than to offer responsible national leadership."

Norton, the former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, cited only one Reagan administration official as guilty of prompting confusion over affirmative action -- William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights.

"William Bradford Reynolds. . . has used his federal office to escalate the drumbeat" against affirmative action, said Norton in her speech at the Library of Congress, "the first time in memory a highly placed federal official has assumed so distinctly a polarizing posture in civil rights matters." Reynolds could not be reached for comment.

Despite the Reagan administration, more Americans are opposed to racial discrimination today and support affirmative action than when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, Norton said. And she said American business has not attacked the use of affirmative action but "deserves some praise for the extent to which it has used it ."

"The increase in controversy over affirmative action since the Reagan administration has come to power does not emanate from the American people . . . , " she said. "Today, controversy . . . is being generated by a few politically motivated politicians who have thus far preferred to exploit the existing puzzlement and concern over affirmative action than to offer responsible national leadership."

However, Norton, a Georgetown University law professor, cautioned that opponents cannot be dismissed merely as opponents of equality for blacks or women.

She said affirmative action is a divergence from the norm for many people: "That norm of a better life with each succeeding generation in this country makes it genuinely difficult for many Americans to understand why, given average effort, this mobility has not been possible for all who have wanted it . . . . "