WE WERE GOING to say that as Cabinet firings go it was almost gracious -- these things are relative. But the president says it wasn't a firing at all, and since he is the one who did the deed, he must know what was in his mind. Still, whatever it was, Margaret Heckler, invited to become U.S. ambassador to Ireland (just as Joseph A. Califano Jr. before her was asked to leave the same department and become U.S. ambassador to Italy), had long been the target of political knifework from some parts of the administration and the subject of inspired unfriendly rumors -- all reporters knew this -- and she did not seem mad keen to go. She is, however, going.

What was so relatively "gracious" about this, you ask? We ask, in turn, that you just let your mind play over some of the spectacular mass banishings and individual garrotings of recent years. Under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter the carnage was startling; James Schlesinger, in fact, managed to be a victim in both men's Cabinet "massacres," no little achievement. Mrs. Heckler comes off moderately well. This is all the more true when you consider that she was in the department, Health and Human Services, or HHS (formerly Health, Education and Welfare, or HEW), that could properly be called the Deadman's Gulch of Cabinet officers. Under Dwight Eisenhower and every president since, the presiders over this department have tended to have run-ins with White House staff and presidents themselves concerning the political and financial liberality of programs the department administers. When one started hearing Mrs. Heckler bad-mouthed by some administration superconservatives a year or so ago, it didn't come as an overwhelming surprise.

Of Mrs. Heckler's time at HHS, a couple of things can be said. One is that, under assault by right-wing antagonists within and around the HHS leadership, she gave as good as she got. She was tough, a formidable opponent in the guerrilla war. She also was on the right side of many issues and got there early -- some she even identified before others quite knew their importance or meaning. On the government's obligation concerning AIDS, on the need to reach agreement with Congress on Social Security disability policy and on a variety of other important health and welfare issues she was where she should have been when it counted. Mrs. Heckler, in other words, did much good work. Fired or not, over the years, in Democratic eras and Republican ones, that has become almost a sure-fire prescription for a relatively brief tenure at HEW/HHS.