THE ADMINISTRATION is evidently about to appoint Peter J. Duignan, a Hoover Institution scholar who specializes in Africa, to be director of the National Archives. Members of the Senate, aware of the controversy over several recent appointments, have had their attention drawn to some provocative accounts of his views on the subject of South Africa and are beginning a thorough review of all Dr. Duignan's publications.

This is fine -- members of Congress have much to be embarrassed about in the casual way they have let some appointees through and then howled like banshees when they found out more about those they had approved. But it is important to distinguish between views that are so beyond the pale as to raise questions about a nominee's character, intelligence or moral sensibilities, and views that are merely controversial. The right and the political space to express unpopular views must be fiercely protected. Dr. Duignan has written that the United States can best promote change in South Africa by supporting white reformers rather than isolating whites as a group. That view is not shared by all opponents of apartheid in this country, but it is not far from the administration's own policy of "constructive engagement" and it is not on its face a wholly indefensible position. Unless further investigation reveals that Dr. Duignan holds truly dishe favors one approach rather than another in dealing with the South African government should not disqualify him from the job at the Archives.

The Senate does have a special obligation to review the nominee's professional qualifications for the job. When Congress gave the Archives independent status this year, its clear intent was that the person chosen to lead the institution would be selected without regard to political affiliations and solely on the basis of professional qualifications. The Society of American Archivists has urged the appointment of a director with "an understanding of archival concerns and an appreciation of the role of historical research in documenting our government's policies, programs and actions." The society also believes the director should have an understanding of government and the Washington bureaucracy, significant administrative experience and a reputation of leadership and excellence in his profession. Only a nominee who comes up to these standards deserves to be confirmed.