THE departure of Mrs. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick from the post of United States ambassador to the United Nations and selection of Gen. Vernon L. Walters to succeed her has been accompanied by more than the usual attention. First there was speculation over whether she might be given a higher post. She was pushed both for the National Security Council slot at the White House and for George Shultz's job as secretary of state. The White House kept issuing assertions that her services were much desired but alack, there seemed to be nothing available that would be important enough for her talents.
At the end the White House was still saying it wanted her to stay if only it could find a suitable role for her. At the end, also, her office in New York was insisting that she was a member of the National Security Council (NSC) and White House spokesmen were saying that, no, she was not a member, although she had frequently attended its meetings.
This matter of the UN ambassador's being a member of the council then cropped up over the nomination of General Walters to succeed her. It was reported that he would accept only if he were given NSC status. The White House kept saying that he would be welcome at NSC meetings, but that he would not actually be a statutory member. He finally accepted the job under ambiguity about his status.
All ambassadors are in theory the personal representatives of the president. But normally they report to the president through the State Department and take their instructions through the State Department. Only in exceptional cases and for exceptional reasons does an ambassador enjoy direct access to the president as a member either of the NSC or the Cabinet.
There have been exceptions. Adlai Stevenson was one. Henry Cabot Lodge was another. But exceptions can cause confusion about who is running foreign policy. Unless an ambassador reports through the State Department, the secretary of state can be in ignorance of what policy someone else is making.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick claimed the right of direct access and used it to push her own ideas. She was the primary representative inside the administration of a special political segment of the US political spectrum. She is a ``neo-conservative.'' She was nominated for her UN position by the leading philosopher of the neo-conservative movement, Norman Podhoretz, who is also editor of Commentary magazine, which is the prime vehicle for neo-conservative views.
Neo-conservatives are identified by Mr. Podhoretz as being ``strong supporters of Israel.'' According to him an attack on Israel is an ``attack on the political culture of the US and of the entire democratic world.''
Neo-conservatives also believe in attempting to regain the military superiority over the Soviets which the US possessed from 1945 (the first nuclear weapon) to Richard Nixon's d'etente in 1972.
A third point in their platform is a sustained attempt to break up the Soviet empire. This involves avoiding such dealings with the Soviets as arms control negotiations.
Other prominent neo-conservatives include Richard N. Perle at the Defense Department, who argues that the Soviets will never accept any agreement unless it is to their advantage, hence opposes any attempt to reach an agreement with them. Columnist William Safire presents the neo-conservative policies brilliantly on the New York Times op-ed page.
Neo-conservatives are currently deeply disappointed in President Reagan over his new ``soft line'' toward the Soviets and what they regard as his general softness on policy toward Eastern Europe, Central America, and the Middle East. Their hope was that Mrs. Kirkpatrick would be able during the second administration to lead Mr. Reagan back to their views.
But if the President was serious about seeking an easier relationship with the Soviets, Mrs. Kirkpatrick had to go. She has.