I WAS JOGGING in Rock Creek Park the other day when Bascomb stuck his head out of a cave.

"Are they over yet?" he asked me.

"Are what over yet?"

"The presidential primaries," he said.

"Of course they're not over," I told him. "They've just begun."

"I was afraid of that," he replied, and started to walk back into the cave.

"Wait a minute, Bascomb. You can't stay in a cave until the primaries are over."

"Why not?"

"Well for one thing, it's probably against the law. You have to live through them like everybody else."

"I can't take it," he said. "Why did they have to start so early?"

"It takes a lot of organization to run for president of the United States.

The candidates have to campaign earlier every four years, or they won't have a chance."

"Couldn't they have waited until Jan. 1 so we all could have had a nice Christmas?"

"Perhaps. But people don't have any money left after Christmas to give the candidates. You have to tap the public when you're running for office, before they waste it all on toys and gifts for their families. Come on Bascomb, get your things together, and I'll jog home with you."

"No way," he said. "I have a low pain threshold. I just can't watch those guys on television every night telling me how they're going to save the country."

"But that's the way the American political system works," I told him. "The United States selects six or seven of the best and the brightest people in the country, and then we all study them to see who would make the finest leader of the greatest country in the world."

"Who says they're the best and the brightest?"

"They do, or at least their staffs tell them they are. But that isn't important. What is important is that the people are given an opportunity to listen to what these men have to say, so we can decide which one of them is qualified to handle the problems that beset the nation and the world."

"But they're not saying anything," Bascomb growled.

"It's too early for them to say anything. Right now they're just talking to the people who will give them money, so they're telling them what they want to hear. Once they get the money, they'll get down to the issues."

"What issues?"

"Things like love of country, the evils of inflation, military weakness, the problems of the poor, the search for a better life for all the people and, of course, crime in the streets."

"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather stay in my cave until it's over."

I was starting to get angry.

"Listen to me, Bascomb. We're all in this together. If I have to listen to the rhetoric, so do you. That's the price we pay for a free society. There is no such thing as a free lunch or a free presidential election. If you want a president you have to go through the time-honored rituals we've set up to select one. What would happen if everyone crawled into a cave just when the campaign started?"

"I've got plenty of room, if you'd like to join me," he said. "It's really great. You can't get any television reception at all."

"Thanks, but no thanks," I told him. "I'd rather watch the candidates and take my lumps like everybody else."

"Okay," he said, "but don't come around in March and ask to move into my cave."