The Jeane J. Kirkpatrick who emerges from the journalistic firefight over her post-U.N. future seems to me grotesquely wrong: more like a papier-mach,e Halloween mask than the warm, witty private woman known to her friends.

So what has become of Jeane Kirkpatrick? Or, more precisely, what have we done to her?

The latest Kirkpatrick embroilment probably began in Dallas last summer with her rip-snorting attack on the "San Francisco" (i.e., left-wing) Democrats. That keynote at the Republican convention struck me as an aberration from the usual Kirkpatrick speech, which is courteous, considered and careful.

But what the hell, she just had herself an oratorical fling. Even eggheads like to rattle their cages occasionally. Henry Kissinger had done the same thing in the same forum in 1980, though more cautiously -- gingerly tossing a few shreds of raw meat to the GOP primitives who four years earlier reviled him as "Kissingerinski," traitor to red-blooded American principles. Jeane Kirkpatrick threw them the whole haunch.

Since Dallas, and more so since the election, the clamor over her future has mounted. She is tired of being our ambassador at the United Nations. But the posts she might want are filled.

What is interesting about this, however, is less the journalistic debate over jobs for Jeane, absurdly oscillating between idolatry and mockery. It is the accompanying transformation of Jeane Kirkpatrick into a solemn caricature.

In the making, and now well advanced, is one of the all-time horrible examples of Washington's proneness to simplify complex people. Because both boosters and detractors want to view her that way, she is emerging as a fiery shrew with bloodshot eyes, a long face and a very hard-edged ideology.

She has, in other words, suffered from the poverty of our categories of controversy. She's a victim of the lazy, impatient yearning to make simple sense of complicated matters. The political scale now prevailing lacks the half-tones and chromatics to get her right; so we have loud, discordant banging from friend and foe.

Jeane Kirkpatrick isn't compromising with the catch-and-label brigades who stalk her footsteps. Just the other day she gave a knowing, funny (and, alas, true) talk about the male-chauvinist climate of federal government in its higher reaches. It was vintage Kirkpatrick, and nonpartisan. But it was read, falsely, as a sulky effort to explain away her (supposed) disappointment.

Kirkpatrick is complicated by sensibility as well as political acumen. She showed it classically in a talk of a year ago which the caricaturists don't mention, and may not know of. This was her fine eulogy (which she undoubtedly wrote herself) of her close friend, the late Anne Crutcher, editorial page editor of The Washington Times.

It was the assessment of one warm, wise, witty professional woman by another -- another who happened to share gifts not only for politics but also for culture, cooking, "parenting" (dreadful but unavoidable word) and just living. The words could not be imagined coming from people for whom politics, at its most banal, exhausts all imaginable reaches of life and concern.

A booster has compared Kirkpatrick to Dean Acheson, much to the indignation of anti-Kirkpatrick folk who revered Acheson.

The indignation may be misplaced, but then it may be more accurate to say that Kirkpatrick and Acheson are kindred phenomena, if not also statesmen. Acheson, too, had sensibility, and often flouted conventional expectations. Who was this, his enemies angrily asked, who quoted St. Matthew to explain his personal loyalty to Alger Hiss? Or who, when sought out for the expectedly crushing epitaph on Sen. Joe McCarthy, calmly responded: "De mortuis nihil nisi bonum" (speak only good of the dead)?

Not until Acheson's rich, splendid memoirs appeared, long after his exit from office, did the measure of the man emerge from the distortions and fog of the public clamor.

L'affaire Kirkpatrick may teach minor and negligible lessons about the intrigues and rivalries of the Reagan administration. But it teaches a lesson of greater human consequence: the need to expand and refine our grosser perceptions when political talent and fine sensibility come, all too rarely, in tandem.