The question is not exactly a stumper, but it is well worth asking: What has Elizabeth Hanford Dole, the secretary of transportation, done to deserve the glowing reputation she enjoys -- the gushing profiles, the speaking engagements, the favor of the Great Mentioner?

Writing in The Washington Monthly for September, Philip Weiss lays out a doleful record. Auto safety and airline travel, he argues in detail and at length, are in a far sorrier state than they were when Dole took over the department in 1983 -- yet she manages to identify herself as a champion of safety.

In exploring her charmed career, Weiss portrays a woman with her finger to the political wind (she's been a Democrat, an Independent and a Republican) and a well-honed instinct for saluting smartly and charging up the hill. As a Cabinet member, according to Weiss, she has been "obsessed with publicity" and given to taking credit for policies she once opposed, yet spineless in fighting either the auto companies or the Office of Management and Budget.

So how does Weiss explain Dole's Teflon coat? She's half of Washington's highest ranking "power couple" and a prospective first lady, both of which buy her immunity. As an advocate of safety (never mind how ineffective), she is regarded even by critics as "a beleaguered idealist" surrounded by hard-hearted cretins. Finally, she's the only woman left in the Reagan Cabinet, so feminists tend to go easy on her and "when she walks into Senate hearing rooms, the members become so chivalrous you'd think the Round Table was in session."

The Molar of the Story Dentists like to decorate their offices with harmless little cartoons about their patients and their profession. They are hereby dared to display something much funnier, Peter Freundlich's "The Crime of the Tooth." This essay, in the September Harper's, plumbs one man's fear and loathing in the dentist's chair: "the loss of speech, the pinioning, the drool tides coming in and washing out, the marooning of the brain."

Freundlich's mind works in extravagant ways. The dentist's chart reminds him of "the seating plan of a Greek amphitheater." He pictures the corners of his mouth meeting at the back of his head. He observes that "Only lovemaking happens at this range." He is an anthropologist: "Some aborigines wear teeth around their necks; they ought to wear dentists -- little shriveled, sun-dried dentists." He imagines his mouth, "overstuffed, filled to cracking, with egg-beaters and chrome tricycles and socket wrenches and antique wristwatches, small prams, suits of armor, coffee-makers."

A prediction: Freundlich's creative delirium will go on to have many lives, first in airline magazines and then in composition textbooks under "Humor." It is a classic, in other words.

Breaking Away It's been suggested that the very first story about the Iran-contra affair should have carried the byline of Edwin Meese. The attorney general, after all, disclosed the most dramatic news to surface in the last year. The suggestion is both spurious and profound, as a story in the new Rolling Stone (Sept. 10) makes clear.

Two Associated Press reporters, in fact, were hot on the trail of the story in 1984. "We knew that there was a secret intelligence network established to run foreign policy," declares Bob Parry of his legwork with Brian Barger. "We knew that it was run out of the White House, that it circumvented the oversight laws and it was run by top aides with presidential approval. But we couldn't convince anyone that this was a news story."

Their frustration is at the heart of Jefferson Morley and Tina Rosenberg's account. Higher-ups at the Associated Press, who encouraged Barger and Parry's initial inquiries, turned skittish when they read the controversial results. One major story the reporters produced, about contra connections to the drug trade, was first published in Spanish -- and by accident.

The implications of this tale go beyond the AP, or columnist Jack Anderson's team (which also had early pieces of the Iran-contra puzzle) or the work of The Miami Herald's Alfonso Chardy (also credited here), to the reluctance of mainstream news media to follow stories their competitors ignore -- "Get it first, but first get it second" is the grim quip heard around the AP.

To say that Edwin Meese gave the nation's media the approval they needed to pursue this story is not far from the truth. As Morley and Rosenberg frame the paradox, the Associated Press "beat the big media on the decade's major story while doing everything within its power to blow it."

Table of Contents The New Republic's Michael Kinsley understands that Hugh Sidey, Time magazine's veteran president-watcher, is a hard man to best. But Kinsley succeeds, in his "TRB" column in the Sept. 7 issue, by landing an exclusive interview with Pharaoh Amenhotep III. "The sharks and cynics who count Amenhotep out just because he has been dead for 34 centuries," he writes, "characteristically underestimate this man of rare vision and courage." 'Nuff said.

The recent news about disconnected odometers on new Chrysler Corp. automobiles was, in the words of Changing Times, "small potatoes" compared with what goes on in the used-car trade. The Kiplinger consumer monthly reports in its September issue that "odometers get rolled back an average of 30,000 miles on three million vehicles a year, enabling sellers to cheat buyers out of an average of $1,000 per car." Among other things, buyers should beware even of private owners; this is a favored masquerade of the professional crooks, who are described as "epidemic" in New York City and Washington, D.C.