WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The time-honored way to get ahead is to tell the boss what he wants to hear. Sometimes it's harmless, as it would be for Dagwood to tell Mr. Dithers his new toupee looks great. But the game is played every day at more serious levels, too.
Many a bureaucrat has made hard-hitting speeches drafted to impress the president rather than inform the luncheon guests in front of him. Sadly, many a government analyst has slanted reports on national security issues just to win favorable notice from on high. Ambition makes them do it.
Although it does not seem the height of honesty, one nominee for high office has insisted this week that he played that game -- and that because he did, the Senate should make him a justice of the Supreme Court. Yet before another committee, accusations that another nominee played the game seem to be the greatest threat to his becoming Director of Central Intelligence.
Clarence Thomas, as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, laid down a long paper trail of his opinions on the most controversial issues of the decade. Those speeches and articles consistently upheld the ideology of the Reagan right, often challenging court rulings that stood as the law of the land.
Not surprisingly, Republicans in power were delighted by the novelty of a young black lawyer who agreed with them across the board, and decided this was just the kind of person the nation needed on its highest courts. They picked Mr. Thomas for the Court of Appeals, and despite his inexperience he immediately joined the short list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court.
Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Thomas has not quite said he spoke out the way he did just to advance himself, but one of the many profiles written since his nomination reports that when Reagan aides asked early on what job he would like most, he said Supreme Court. According to him, he spoke and wrote as he did in the Eighties -- on matters that did and did not concern the EEOC -- because he was a ''policy maker.'' Now that he is a judge and wants to be a justice, he says, all those words should be forgotten.
After all, he was just pleasing the boss. And according to some on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Robert Gates may have distorted CIA studies in order to please the Reagan White House. As deputy director of the agency, he allegedly removed differing opinions from a report that alleged KGB involvement in the plot to kill Pope John Paul II. In a public speech, he made Soviet anti-missile progress seem dramatic, which provided ammunition for Mr. Reagan's ''star wars'' project.
NTC Senators maintain that intelligence agencies did not adequately warn the administration of the break-up of Communist Eastern Europe, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the collapse of Soviet communism and civil war in Yugoslavia. They want to know whether Mr. Gates, after moving to the White House national-security office, saw to it that intelligence reports fit known administration policies.
In the good old days when Sam Rayburn was speaker of the House, incoming freshmen were often told, ''The way to get along is to go along'' -- with whatever congressional elders decided. Unlike Judge Thomas, Mr. Gates is not eager for the Senate to believe he was just going along to get along. Although little white and big black lies are common currency for both sides in worldwide intelligence wars, honesty is essential in reporting within the agency's own government.
Any president conscious of history should demand credibility and objectivity from those he picks for high office. If he suspects he is not getting it, he should raise hell until he does. Unfortunately, presidents often make policy on ideological grounds, before the facts are in, and then don't want to hear facts that challenge that policy.
Even at the lowest levels, ambitious men understand this. By saying what the president wants to hear, the smartest, luckiest or most ambitious among them rise to positions where they don't have to play that game any longer. As a country, the best we can hope is that once confirmed, they realize just that.