ROAD SHOW By Roger Simon Farrar Straus Giroux. 331 pp. $19.95

SEE HOW THEY RUN Electing the President In an Age of Mediaocracy By Paul Taylor Knopf. 305 pp. $22.95

A PROFOUND tenet of culinary philosophy holds that men and women who love to taste sausage should never be allowed to witness its manufacture. After reading two books by American journalists who covered the 1988 presidential election, it becomes obvious that a similar observation is relevant to democratic politics. The results may be satisfactory over the long haul, but the process seen up close is agonizing, exhausting and frequently repulsive.

The volumes in question are Road Show by Roger Simon of the Baltimore Sun and See How They Run by Paul Taylor of The Washington Post. Each book has a subtitle or jacket copy which states the author's overall conclusion. For Simon it is a quote from Adlai E. Stevenson: "In America, anyone can become president. It's one of the risks we take." For Taylor it is: "Electing the president in an age of mediaocracy." It is possible to argue intellectually with the conclusions, but an examination of the texts generates a predisposition to agree with them plus a deep feeling of sympathy for men who had to go through the grueling ordeal of a political campaign which produced few, if any, inspirational moments.

In terms of facts, neither book produces important material that was previously unknown. Both, however, are fascinating in their evaluations of the candidates and in the light that is shed on methods of campaigning in the television age, when the old political machines are either dead or impotent and the objective of every move is the "sound bite." What Simon and Taylor present us is akin to the "program notes" which help to place music in context at a symphony concert.

All of the high points and low blows of the 1988 campaign are covered, reviving memories of events that were fading rapidly in the public consciousness. Nothing is omitted -- Willie Horton; Gary Hart's girl problems; George Bush's battle with the "wimp factor"; Dukakis s inability to generate visible passion when discussing what he would do if his wife were raped; Jesse Jackson's troubles with the Jewish vote over his "Hymietown" epithet for New York; the accusations of draft-dodging levelled against Dan Quayle; and, of course, the "read my lips" pledge on taxes. This time, however, we are told not only about the events themselves but how they were contrived and how the candidates stumbled into them. It is a depressing picture.

Simon contents himself with expressing his feelings solely through the tone of his narrative. He chronicles the steps in media manipulation. We are given blow-by-blow accounts of the prepping of each candidate by hired flacks -- who were much more successful with Bush than with Dukakis simply because the latter was rebellious about the whole process. There are some very unflattering portraits of the Republican "handlers," Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater. Ailes is described as a man whose objective was "to make the candidate as passive and obedient as a package of cookies, a product." Atwater is revealed as a student of Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and the Chinese strategies of the 4th Century, B.C. "Deception and discipline are big factors in Atwater's planning," Simon writes. The Democratic handlers fare somewhat better as they were ineffective with the candidate.

Taylor, while conceding that campaigning has never been a matter of intellectual debates, reflects upon steps that might be taken to improve the process. He finds the need for improvement in an analysis of declining voter levels in our society and, what is even more important, declining levels of confidence in our leaders. He admits that the candidates cannot do very much by themselves as television has become the lifeblood of campaigning and has such an overwhelming impact on the political process that all efforts to win must be devoted to capturing the upper hand on the medium. This means the careful plotting of stunts with little attention paid to issues which are too complex to be handled by the "sound byte." Taylor's remedies for this situation are not very sweeping.

First, he would give every presidential candidate five minutes of free, nationwide television on alternate nights, with the stipulation that the candidate be on the air through the program (no Willie Horton commercials). Next, he would shorten the time allotted to presidential campaigning by a lottery system for determining the order in which primaries are to be held by the states and not revealing the order until the last minute. Then he would make it "easier to vote" -- without being specific as to how this would be done. Finally, he wants a campaign to "educate our children in the duties of citizenship." To back this, he cites a 1989 survey which found that young people had "an impoverished view" of their obligations as Americans.

There is a despairing note to Taylor's evaluations of modern campaigning. The premise of his book is "that the political dialogue is failing." "I have no intention of assigning blame," he writes, "for as I see it, all three sets of actors {politicians, press and voters} are trapped in a vicious circle. They have little choice but to behave as they do, given the way the rewards, penalities and incentives of their political culture are arrayed before them."

Taylor's assessments of the ills that are caused by modern styles of campaigning have a familiar ring. Speeches are negative and no really important issues are discussed. He points out that only 50.16 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls in 1988. He cites interviews with Americans all over the nation who tell him how little confidence they have in the system. And he finds great significance in the fact that the election wound up with a president facing a Congress controlled by his opposition party for the sixth time in the nine last elections.

One cannot help wondering whether the sense of shock displayed in these two books may not rest on a discovery that politics in a truly democratic society is vulgar. Negative campaigning -- as Taylor himself points out -- is not an invention of the past decade. The "issues" of the past, which so often decided campaigns, usually turned on the possibility that a candidate had fathered an illegitimate brat or was controlled by the Pope. There is one factor that both Simon and Taylor omitted to notice -- that despite the horrible campaigns of bygone years, the system has worked. We have survived as a nation, and there are not very many areas in the world today where people can make such a claim.

These books, however, can serve a valuable purpose by opening up a number of questions for public discussion. Is it possible that the time has come to change our system (which would probably mean a revision of our Constitution itself)? Is there a new type of of voter that needs a new type of campaign? Is television changing the whole process, or are we merely seeing the old process through a new medium? And, finally, can we trace our political troubles to the campaign system, or are they reflections of ills that are deep in our society? We need to clear the air.

George E. Reedy is a former White House press secretary and author of "The Twilight of the Presidency." He has just completed a book on the Irish impact on American politics.