"I AM SURPRISED," Richard L. Strout remarks with typical perspicuity at the end of this long collection of his columns, "to find out how many people mistake longevity for profundity." Strout should know; in his many years of pseudonymous service as TRB, The New Republic's ambassador to official Washington, he has seen them come, and he has seen them go, talking all the time and sometimes even governing the country: an endless file of public employes, a few of them wise and many of them old, all queuked up to hazard their luck on the greasy pole. Now Strout himself is filled with years and, despite his disclaimer, wisdom. And it is in the nature of things that the time has come for a backward glance -- often a bad idea, but in this case a very good one indeed.

Strout has been with The New Republic for a scant 36 years, but his Washington memories go back much further than that, as least as far as Warren G. Harding in a pair of plus-fours, pleading with his questioners at a press conference for mercy in the form of a game of golf. Still, if justice is to be served, TRB's work must be subjected to a scrutiny as rigorous as his own, and I fear that our judgement must be harsh. First, he is no "Stylist": at no point in these pages will the reader be overwhelmed with the feeling that he is being drowned in a bath of warm jello. While this will no doubt come as a terrible disappointment to the admirers of Theodore White and Paul Harvey, it must be said.

Strout, like his friend E. B. White, is basically a writer of letters, and while he apparently spent some time in college, he betrays a pawky insistence on writing American rather than modeling his prose on Pericles' Ode to the Athenian Dead. Although he is both a wit and a sentimentalist (describing the Allied air drop on D-Day, he writes: "Paratroopers in silk webs are in treetops, steeples -- behind the lines. It is a cavalry charge and I have seen it. I am unable to speak. I look up, my eyes are wet"), he persists in addressing the issues rather than hollering at the ghosts under the beds, something that renders his insights utterly devoid of the hilarity so abundantly present in the writings of William F. Buckley.

As a pundit, his crystal ball occasionallyl flickers and sometimes winks out entirely. He thought Roosevelt was in trouble in '44. He was certain Truman was doomed in '48. He didn't think much of Ike's chances in '52. Unlike many of his colleagues, he had extremely sound reasons for miscalling these results.

However, when this modest fallibility is combined with a tendency to change his mind with changing circumstances (causing him to temper his early enthusiasm for Truman and Kennedy, for example), an ability to keep his head when all others are losing theirs (the Red Scare), a gift for the telling phrase (November 21, 1960: "A few days more and the Republicans will convince themselves they won the election") and intellectual consistency (a marked preference for the parliamentary system), then we are confronted with an anomaly as old as the Republic. Strout keeps on behaving like Crevecoeur's American farmer in a polity that, although it professes to admire Crevecoeur's American farmer to distraction, has never been entirely comfortable with him. Indeed, much of our history is comprehensible only when it is understood that various captains and officers of the Ship of State have ardently wished the Crevecoeur's American farmer would get hit by a truck.

If there are common threads running through these pages, they are Strout's conviction that common sense should light the nation's footsteps, that in the modern age central planning is vastly preferable to local options, and that the Republicans can't do anything right and never have. TRB is an old-fashioned liberal, of course. He thinks poverty is unconscionable, stupidity is bad, and problems can be solved by the application of thought, good will and correct information. In short, he still believes in the possibility of man's perfection.

As a result, while the columns here collected are about much more than the presidency -- Strout is exceedingly curious about how the rest of the government works, too -- his enduring preoccupation is with the character of the great and the mighty. He believes that we don't elect programs and trends nearly as often as we elect rather ordinary human beings, and he thinks it is important to understand how they behave. Any 12-Year-old-kid will tell you that it is absolutely essential to know this, but most grown-up political writers (except TRB) tend to forget it.

The normal lifespan of a political column is only marginally greater than that of the average mayfly. This is only as it should be: the vast majority of political columns only weigh as much as the average mayfly. At best, they are informed cocktail chatter; at worst, advertisements disguised as opinion. The daily reports get the scoops, the magazine journalists do the deep thinking, and it is about once in a blue moon that a columnist actually gets to expose a ruffian, as William Safire did, or becomes, like Tom Wicker at Attica, a fragment of the conscience of man. Rarer still does a columnist write history, but that is what RICHARD L. Strout has done. He is at one with those old chroniclers who began so simply with the words: I was there. I saw it happen. This is how it was.

Historians of the future can rejoice and unborn graduate students can lay aside their theories in despair. After all, TRB was there.