The Old Switcheroo

CLARENCE THOMAS is eminently qualified to hold one of the most important positions in the federal government. He should be confirmed.

Robert Gates is similarly qualified for another important post, and he should be confirmed as well.

Unfortunately, when President Bush picked these two gentlemen to be, respectively, a justice of the Supreme Court and director of central intelligence, he matched them with the wrong jobs.

It is Gates, not Thomas, who is a good pick to sit on the Court, and it is Thomas, not Gates, who should run the CIA.

TWO QUALIFICATIONS seem necessary to become a justice of the Supreme Court in 1991. The first is being politically compatible with the President. The second is having no thought-out approach to constitutional law.

Qualification No. 1 is not new. With a few important exceptions, Supreme Court appointments have long been made with political ideology in mind. What is innovative is the new requirement that potential justices have no theory of jurisprudence. In older and undoubtedly backward times, justices were supposed to be experts in their fields.

No more. Judge Thomas explicitly denies having a constitutional philosophy. Having proclaimed Roe v. Wade the most important constitutional case in the last 20 years, Thomas has tried valiantly to convince the Senate that he has never discussed the case with anyone or even thought about it himself. He seems to believe that he will sit on the highest court in the land only if people believe that he has no legal expertise. And he's probably right.

Just by coincidence, there are also two qualifications necessary to being named director of the CIA. The first (does this sound familiar?) is political compatibility with the President. The second is ignorance of anything that happened in the CIA during the Reagan administration. While Clarence Thomas, the judge, was certifying himself free of legal thought, Robert Gates, the spy, steadfastly denied knowledge of events in the Iran-Contra scandal. Knowing what is going on is once again a liability.

THE PROBLEM, of course, is that the claims of these two nominees aren't credible.

Nobody believes that Thomas, a federal judge, has never thought about Roe, and nobody believes that Gates, as deputy director of the CIA, didn't know what happened in his own organization in the early 1980s. Given the ignorance litmus test, both confirmations are in jeopardy.

On the other hand, Clarence Thomas would make an excellent nominee for CIA director. He meets both qualifications: he is ideologically compatible with Mr. Bush, and he probably didn't know Oliver North's name until the rest of us did. If Thomas told a Senate committee that he had no special knowledge of the workings of the CIA under William Casey and Ronald Reagan, he would be credible. Nobody expects him to know those things. Thus passing both tests, his confirmation as America's chief spy should be a breeze.

And Thomas's recent experiences with disinformation and "plausible deniability" would further recommend him for Bill Casey's old job.

Gates, similarly, meets both requirements for becoming a Supreme Court justice. He is, as before, a political friend of the President. He can credibly claim to have no developed ideas about the Constitution. CIA men are not expected to have that kind of expertise.

And if any Senator accused Gates of thinking about law cases on the side, Gates could point to his role in Iran-Contra as proof that the Constitution has played very little role in his career.

IT IS POSSIBLE, although by no means certain, that Clarence Thomas would be a lousy spymaster. And Robert Gates might turn out to be a mediocre justice.

But mediocrity doesn't seem to concern the President or the Senate right now. Whether or not a person would be good at a job, especially an important job where lives and principles hang in the balance, need not be considered when filling posts. All that matters are the two great qualifications of loyalty and ignorance.

In which case, the next nominee to the Bush Supreme Court should be Millie, Barbara's dog.

Thomas and Gates would be perfect. If they'd only trade places.