Margaret Heckler's new government post was described by a former occupant as the one which, ''next to the president, offered more opportunity to do good than any other.'' There is a way she can make the most of her opportunity as head of the Department of Health and Human Services. It is to adhere, on every issue, to what she said during her battles against the signs of retreat from women's rights at the 1980 Republican convention: ''I'm interested in results. I don't want to hear any more rhetoric.''
Those words were uttered just before a meeting to try to persuade candidate Ronald Reagan to make a commitment to such goals as recruiting women for his administration and the judiciary. Thus she must take some satisfaction in President Reagan's appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor as a Supreme Court justice , Jeane Kirkpatrick as chief delegate to the United Nations, and last week Elizabeth Dole as secretary of transportation. Perhaps Mr. Reagan can take a bit of extra credit now for appointing a Mrs. Heckler who has spoken her mind to him on something he opposes as strongly as the Equal Rights Amendment.
To be sure, as a congresswoman, Mrs. Heckler was a loyal player on the Reaganomics team.
But the highest sense of loyalty will be demonstrated in her new post not only by faithfully administering law and policy - but by her speaking candidly to the President on the views and needs of the vast constituencies served by Health and Human Services.
These include the nation's racial minorities and feminine majority with whom he is said to be out of touch.
Such a service to the White House can begin even while Mrs. Heckler is mastering the huge managerial task presented by a bureaucracy handling the nation's biggest spending budget. That budget is exceeded only by the entire national budget of the Soviet Union and, above that, of the United States.
One of her responsibilities will be social security, the most pressing and controversial of imminent domestic issues. Not far behind it is the question of an effective and efficient health care budget.
She is fortunate in that the reorganization by the previous administration consolidated medicare, medicaid, long-term care, and quality assurance under one umbrella. But she will have to persist in efforts for such improvements as hospital cost controls which she has favored as a legislator.
Much has been made of Mrs. Heckler's Roman Catholic religion and opposition to abortion. Some pro-choice women's groups have forsaken her on this issue. The president of the National Organization for Women goes so far as to call Mrs. Heckler's appointment ''window-dressing'' and ''certainly not an advantage for women.''
But Mrs. Heckler's own opinion on any particular issue should be less pertinent than an ability to see the necessities of the American people and how best to meet them under the law.