Robert A. Taft's political career and reputation are little noted and less remembered in Washington today. To the extent that "Mr. Republican," as he was called in life, is recalled, it's as an ultra-conservative, if not reactionary, bygone Republican leader who never fulfilled his presidential ambitions.

He deserves better, for Bob Taft provided what John F. Kennedy described as a preeminent example of a political profile in courage. Taft also displayed the kind of independence and adherence to constitutional principles that have been sorely missing amid the demagogic maneuvering for nine-second television sound bites in the fight about a flag-burning amendment.

Taft always put principle over politics, whatever the cost. At the core of his belief was a reverence for a Constitution, a document that represented "not a list of pleasing platitudes to be set lightly aside when expediency required it." It was this belief that led Taft to speak out strongly when Nazi war criminals were sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

"The hanging of the 11 men convicted," Taft said in the 1946 speech that wrecked his presidential prospects, "will be a blot on the American record which we shall long regret. In these trials, we have accepted the Russian idea of the purpose of trials -- government policy and not justice. . . . At the end of a frightful war, we should view the future with more hope if even our enemies believed that we had treated them justly. . . . "

In recounting Taft's virtually solitary stand against overwhelming opinion, a stand that he knew imperiled his career, Kennedy admiringly added: "His action was characteristic of a man who was labeled a reactionary, who was proud to be a conservative and who authored these lasting definitions of liberalism and liberty: 'Liberalism implies particularly freedom of thought, freedom from orthodox dogma, the right of others to think differently from one's self. It implies a free mind, open to new ideas and willing to give attentive consideration. . . . When I say liberty, I mean liberty of the individual to think his own thoughts and live his own life as he desires to think and to live.' "

Contrast that with much of the behavior during the flag amendment debate. Not the least was the despicable charge by Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) that House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) was "kowtowing" to communists in failing to put off the flag vote, an action Solomon likened to communists trampling and desecrating "our American flag."

Congressman, meet Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was Holmes who articulated the classic standard of the "clear and present danger" that still stands. During World War I, two Americans were charged with conspiring while the United States was at war to write and publish "disloyal, abusive and scurrilous language about the form of government of the United States" that was intended "to incite, provoke and encourage resistance to the United States in said war."

Arguing that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market," Holmes warned: "We should be eternally vigilant against the attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country."

Does anyone supporting the constitutional flag amendment seriously believe that today's handful of flag-burners represents a "clear and present danger" to the survival of this constitutional democracy?

If so, he or she might ponder the words of another great justice, Robert H. Jackson, in a famous World War II decision. Two Pennsylvania public schoolchildren, ages 10 and 12, were expelled for refusing to salute the flag as part of a daily school exercise. As members of Jehovah's Witnesses, they had been raised to believe that such a gesture of respect for the flag was forbidden by Scripture.

"Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters," Jackson wrote. "Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard. . . . If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."

Nor do they occur now.