At a White House briefing last Thursday, Larry Speakes fielded no fewer than 17 questions from two reporters who sought to pin him down on Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester A. Crocker's controversial statement, before a House subcommittee, that members of the African National Congress in South Africa were "freedom fighters." While not denying that Crocker had said as much, the presidential spokesman suggested that a congressman had elicited the comment with a question "that was loaded to get a specific answer out of him that they could hype, which they did."

Three days later, however, a senior administration official took a bolder stance. Shortly before the president's televised address urging aid for the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, or contras, the official responded to a question with the statement, "Chet Crocker did not say the ANC were freedom fighters. In fact, it's our view that any group that is supported by the Soviet Union does not have freedom as one of its objectives and so we would not agree that the ANC are freedom fighters."

For the record, here is the exchange that took place between Crocker and Rep. Howard E. Wolpe (D-Mich.) March 12 before the House subcommittee on Africa:

Wolpe: Would you characterize those within the National African sic Congress and other of the liberation movements as freedom fighters in South Africa?

Crocker: Well, in a sense, people are fighting for their freedom in many different ways in South Africa. I would not confine it to them. But the term that I would use is, you know, that there are people who are engaged in the struggle.

Wolpe: I am not saying to confine it to them, I said would you at least apply it to them, not necessarily exclusively?

Crocker: In a generic sense, yes, sure.

Candid-ate Camera . . . A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing got off to an unusual start last Thursday when Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) looked into the television camera, smiled his broadest smile and said, "Hi, Ed!"

Biden told the puzzled audience that he was sending salutations to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, because one of the many TV cameras in the hearing room belonged to the Justice Department. Biden wondered aloud why the department was taping the hearing.

John Bolton, assistant attorney general for congressional affairs, rose to explain that the tape would be used to show future nominees what's in store when they have to testify before the committee.

Meese's aides could not have picked a better case study of the confirmation process: a grueling, six-hour hearing on the fitness of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala., to be a federal judge. Any nominee who sits through the Sessions tapes may decide to show up in a suit of armor.

The Shoe Drops . . . The White House yesterday made the long-anticipated announcement that Dorcas R. Hardy, assistant secretary of health and human services for human development services, will be nominated Social Security commissioner, replacing Martha A. McSteen, who has been acting commissioner for two and a half years.

Dr. William L. Roper, assistant to the president for health policy, will be nominated as administrator of the HHS Health Care Financing Administration, which runs the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The appointees, who are subject to Senate confirmation, would be responsible for two of the most powerful purses in government, with combined outlays of more than $300 billion a year.

Rader's Wait . . . For lack of a quorum, a Senate committee adjourned abruptly yesterday without voting on the controversial nomination of Texas lawyer Robert E. Rader Jr. to the Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission.

Committee sources say panel approval hinges on the vote of Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), who has not announced his position.