Raymond J. Donovan's four-year secretariat of the labor department appears destined to be known more for lingering criminal inquiries - none so far sustained by conviction - than for achievements in his official role.
Mr. Donovan has done the right thing in taking a leave of absence from his Cabinet duties to respond to a county grand jury indictment in New York. He and other officials of Donovan's New Jersey construction firm are charged with various counts of grand larceny, false documentation, and filing false business records in connection with government construction contracts. Some of these matters had been looked into by a special federal prosecutor, who reported in 1982 there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Donovan on federal charges of criminal corruption and links to organized crime before his going to Washington in 1981. Fairness dictates that Donovan's innocence be assumed until such time as a legal determination finds otherwise. The White House has also acted correctly in wasting no time in distancing Mr. Donovan from the President's reelection campaign.
But this is not all there is to the matter. Donovan's tenure in the Cabinet reflects another feature of the Reagan administration: a reluctance to shuffle the leadership command or bring in fresh talent until internal conflict or external embarrassment compels a change. This was the case with figures like James Watt in the Interior Department, Richard Allen as national-security adviser, Alexander Haig at the State Department. The Reagan administration skipped the customary guard-changes at the two-year and three-year marks, where normally a potential political liability would be replaced. It was no secret that Mr. Donovan was one such candidate early on. Now he has become the first sitting Cabinet officer ever indicted - a historical footnote that the administration would just as soon have avoided.
It is not that Mr. Donovan's stewardship has been intellectually or otherwise important to the Reagan record.
Ray Donovan has been no Ray Marshall, Jimmy Carter's labor chief. Mr. Marshall was an important figure in the Carter Cabinet. He was an economics professor at the University of Texas and the University of Mississippi - Ol' Miss of segregation fame - who nonetheless was counted on to represent the cases of minorities and civil rights groups as well as organized labor in White House deliberations. Marshall oversaw reorganization of the Labor Deparment. He was involved in the Chrysler bailout and promoted some of the first job training programs anticipating high technology's impact on industry.
The most notable labor action in the Reagan administration, quashing the air controllers' strike, was a Drew Lewis Transportation Department event. The key job-protection controversies, in the auto and steel industries, are largely managed by Special Trade Representative Bill Brock. Mr. Donovan is associated largely with pushing the minimum-wage differential for youth, which is opposed by organized labor.
It's late in the game now to do other than let the Donovan case run its course until after the election.
But in a new administration, whatever their differences on organized labor, either a Reagan or a Mondale White House will want to take note of the changes in American work life. While union membership plummets, there are more workers than ever. The new jobs often pay less; reports of electronic sweatshops surface; regional and other disparities in job opportunities need review. The nation and a president's Cabinet require a labor secretary whose credentials, credibility, and clout can represent the 100 million or so Americans who get up every day and go to work to keep society running.