In the rough-and-tumble world of Washington politics it is rare indeed to survive in public service for six decades. Adm. Hyman Rickover joins a small roster of government officials in this century who not only survived, but built formidable power centers of their own along the way. Now, in finally being asked to retire from his post as the head of the Navy's nuclear program next January, Admiral Rickover leaves behind a remarkable legacy - and a nation's gratitude.
Admiral Rickover's story is somewhat akin to that of another gladiator-visionary, Gen. ''Billy'' Mitchell, who took on the military establishment in the mid-1920s in his singled-minded advocacy of air power. Admiral Rickover's cause was nuclear power. The difference, of course, is that Admiral Rickover, unlike General Mitchell, prevailed. He managed, despite intense opposition from within the military, to lay the foundation for and direct the development of the world's most powerful nuclear naval force. Today that force assures America's security at a time when land-based missiles are becoming obsolete. Also to the admiral's credit is the fact that there has never been a major failure involving a US Navy nuclear vessel.
It is to be hoped that Admiral Rickover will accept an offer to be a White House nuclear adviser. The nation should continue to benefit from the experience of the man whom Navy Secretary John Lehman rightly called ''a giant in the contribution he has made.''