The brains at the State Department are on the telephone right now. Must be. I can hear them. Can you hear them? I can hear a brain at the Iran desk. He is saying, "Ummm, maybe we should tell Terry Bradshaw to forget it. Better put in a call to Pittsburgh and tell Terry to unpack. Tell him we're trying something else with the hostages. Oh, yeah, tell him we won't need Mean Joe Greene's phone number."

The brains at the State Department last week asked Muhammad Ali to go to Africa. They wanted him to sell some African nations on joining us in ignoring the Olympics if the Games to on in Moscow. They wanted Ali to stand up for truth, justice and the American way. They figured the Africans loved Ali, the heavyweight champion, and so they would love Ali the diplomat.

As Ali was an incomparable fighter, he too is an incomparable diplomat.

Which is one way of putting it.

Another way of putting it is to say that Muhammad Ali is to diplomacy as Hammerin' Henry Kissinger is to boxing.

The poor guy's come unarmed.

It is right and good that American athletes stay out of Moscow this summer. Send the grizzly bear a message. We won't go along with his masquerade as a cute little cuddly teddy bear. We ought to bring up the bear's transgressions on every soapbox from now until the soapboxes collapse. Then the American athletes will have accomplished something with the gift of their dreams to Jimmy Carter.

But to send Muhammad Alai on a mission of diplomacy, to send him into the thicket of international squabbling when all he knows about international squabbles is that his second wife hit him with a chair in the Philippines, to send this man of simplistic slogans and cutesy poetry into an Africa where people kill people in arguments about the United States -- to make Muhammad Ali an instant diplomat is unfair to him and condescending to those African nations we seek to sway.

Clark Clifford is the ultimate Washington envoy, a silver-haired lawyer, counsel to presidents for decades, the sort of presence that convinces people of his importance. Carter sent Clifford to India, sent national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to Pakistan -- and sent an old entertainer to Africa.

That's what Ali is, an entertainer. The greatest athlete of our time. A master fighter by intelligence and instinct. A street-smart actor who made $40 million a show that ran for 20 years around the world.

He wanted to be more than a showman. He claimed to be a preacher. "I ain't got nothing againist them Viet Congs," he said when refusing the draft in the early 1960s. He claimed exemption as a Black Muslim preacher and never went to jail. because of that, he came to be a symbol of the antiwar movement. He liked that. It made him more than a pug.

But it wasn't true. He isn't against war. He has said in the last week that he would go to war against Russia. What Ali is, in the public mind, is whatever we want to make of him. He gives us a chance to make of him what we will. A preacher? Okay. A conscientious objector? Fine. A messiah? If you insist.

So when some brain at the State Department decided it would help if Ali went to Africa as a diplomat carrying Jimmy Carter's message, well, who is Muhammad Ali to tell the president he's just a fighter done fighting and barely knows Tanzania from Tarzana?

If Jimmy thinks Ali is a diplomat, he's a diplomat. I can hear Ali now.

"Bundini, let's write a peom," Ali must have said to his aide, Drew (Bundini) Brown. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, if it's up to Ali them Russians won't take Zimbabwe.'"

Alas. The last time Ali worked in Africa, he won the heavyweight championship a second time, knocking out a George Foreman exhausted by Ali's "rope-a-dope" strategy. This time in Africa there is a new fellow getting whipped.

The president of Tanzania refused to see Ali. Reporters asked the diplomat why African countries should support the U.S. when the U.S. didn't support their 26-country boycott of the 1976 Games. The reporters said the nice Soviet Union is supplying arms to the black nationalists of Africa and the U.S. isn't. What did President Carter's emissary think about that?

Ali went down for an eight-count.

When he staggered to his feet, Ali said maybe he shouldn't have taken this fight. If he'd known all this -- if he'd known about the 1976 boycott and about the Russians and about how Africans don't really like the U.S. -- if he had known these things that entertainers don't need to know to get $40 million, he probably would have turned down the president's request.

As far as anyone knows, Ali's campaign against Russia is based on two objections. One, some brain in the State Department probably told Ali that the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan would lead to nuclear war unless Ali went to Nigeria and stopped it.

Ali's other objection to Russia came to light this summer. After a tour to Moscow, where he kissed Brezhnev, as Carter kissed Brezhnev, Ali said he was glad to get home to America because, hey, you can't get a hamburger over there.