An inky wretch (journalist) named Strobe Talbott is enjoying a meteoric rise in the striped-pants precincts of the State Department.

A friend of President Clinton since they were roommates at Oxford, Talbott began his diplomatic career last year at a lofty level, as ambassador-at-large to the 15 nations that made up the Soviet Union.Now the president has nominated him to be deputy secretary of state, the No. 2 job in Foggy Bottom. With his energy, intelligence and closeness to the president - and with Secretary of State Warren Christopher in decline - Talbott seems slated to become the country's de facto diplomatic chief.

Thus the public and the senators who will vote to confirm him ought to take a hard look at the paper trail he left as Time magazine's longtime diplomatic correspondent and editor-at-large.

They will find, perhaps to their surprise, that he was dead wrong about a number of vital issues.

In 1984, for example, he chastised the Reagan administration for "challenging the legitimacy of the Soviet regime, calling the USSR an `evil empire' doomed to fail."

But Reagan was right; it was evil and it did fail.

Talbott was an avid admirer of the Great Waverer, Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1990, a headline over his column read, "Gorbachev is helping the West by showing that the Soviet threat isn't what it used to be - and what's more, that it never was."

He wrote that "scenarios for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe . . . always had a touch of paranoid fantasy about them."

Goodness. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush - all fantasizing as they deployed troops to defend NATO Europe.

Apparently, during all that time, the only sane people were Talbott and a clutch of leftist revisionist historians who blamed the Cold War on - naturally - American policies.

As ambassador-at-large, he has not avoided blunders. After fascists and communists scored in Russia's Dec. 12 election, he quipped, Time-like, that Russia needed "less shock and more therapy."

The remark was not only foolish but also factually wrong. Russia had not tried economic shock therapy. The people's pain came from mismanagement by old communists, not from reformists' efforts. The new Old Guard used Talbott's words to discredit change.

The imbroglio will not prevent Talbott's promotion. Clinton should know, but doesn't, that some fields must be closed to cocky amateurs. One is brain surgery. Another is serious foreign policy.