They have compact bodies and certain gestures. They bounce when they walk. They have terrific posture. They are comics, cute men, pushy men, underdogs. Call them feisty, rambunctious, rabble-rousing.

Short men, bless them all.

They make the best fighter pilots, astronauts, wrestlers, and acrobats. Actors, jockeys, wire walkers, race car drivers and dictators ...

The advantages don't end there.

"Tall people make terrible spies," says Ralph Keyes, author of The Height of Your Life (Warner Books). "There are certain things tall people can't do very well -- secret agents, and they don't make very good criminals. I just read about a bank robber who was 6 feet 6 and I was amazed that he thought he could get away with it."

Al Lew (5 feet 3 1/2) was presented with a pair of stilts at the office Christmas party this year. But he sees the benefits to being short. Lew, an architect and interior designer for the Air National Guard, says short men are perceived as more lovable. "Women come up to me and hug me," Lew says. "Tall men do not get hugs."

In times of famine, taller people are the first to go, according to Keyes, who at 5 feet 7 is two inches under the national average for men. And it's possible that tall people in general don't live as long as short ones, or so several research scientists have set out to prove. It follows the dog principle -- most sleepy, big dogs don't live as long as smaller, yapping ones.

They Try Harder: The Short Mentality Where would the world be without the short man? Without the people who feel they have to prove something?

Psychologists might call it the Napoleon complex, but it's an attitude, not necessarily a size. Because Napoleon Bonaparte, according to the Muse'e de l'Arme'e in Paris, was nearly 5 feet 7 -- not a short man for his time. But he had the advantage of a terrific napoleonic personality.

The short mentality isn't simply more determined and pushy, it's also more interesting, more theatrical. "Short people are allowed to be more expressive," says Keyes. "Our entertainment industry is dominated by smaller people on and off stage. Directors and producers in Hollywood are notoriously on the short side, as well as performers. ... Clint Eastwood is an exception.

"I think men who are shorter do feel the need to compensate with a slightly more aggressive approach. It's what society does to them," says chanteuse/actress Karen Akers, 6 feet. "People defer to someone with tremendous height. People aren't likely to defer to someone who is 4 feet 11 and wearing Cuban heels." The Awful Truth About Short

Short men get a bad rap. It may seem ridiculous in this day and age, nearly 10 years after Randy Newman wrote and sang "Short People," but it's true. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, as income and education levels increase, the men in them are taller. This backs up other studies, which find that taller people are likely to be hired sooner, promoted faster and paid more -- literally by the inch.

Terrel Bell (5 feet 5), former secretary of education, says in his book The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir that his size kept him from fitting in with the current administration. When Bell sat in his Cabinet chair, his feet didn't touch the floor. "I didn't like the jellybeans and my chair didn't fit. Cabinet meetings were apparently not going to be enjoyable for me."

Presiding over those Cabinet meetings would be even tougher. The short man can stage a coup, but he has trouble winning an election. The race for U.S. president has favored the taller of the two major candidates since 1900, with a couple of exceptions -- Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. And Carter, who has always been cagey about his actual height (5 feet 7 to 5 feet 9), as a candidate was perceived to be tall.

"The reason we assumed he was taller is that he spoke softly; he had an air of self-confidence," says pop sociologist Keyes, who was fascinated by Carter's ability to fool the public by acting tall. "And when he walked, rather than throw his chest out, he slouched a little, like he had an inch or two to spare. And only tall people slouch."

Especially Mr. Bad Posture himself, Richard Nixon, 5 feet 11 1/2.

"In politics, there's no question it helps to be tall, to be a senator, or a governor. And certainly we like our presidents to be tall," says Keyes, who also wrote Is There Life After High School. But county positions are more likely to be filled with short men. "The classic mayor is a feisty little guy," says Keyes.

But if a short man were to become president, he would grow in our eyes. The link between height and power is so strong that if a short man gains power, he is perceived as taller, according to psychologists Elaine Hatfield and Susan Sprecher in their book Mirror, Mirror ... The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life (SUNY Press, 1986).

Glamorous examples to the contrary -- the Prince and Princess of Wales, Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, Henry and Nancy Kissinger, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker and, until recently, Brigitte Nielsen and Sylvester Stallone -- women haven't discovered short chic. They still want guys over 5 feet 9, according to several studies. In their eyes short men never get to be hunks; they are either adorably cute or tycoonish -- the newest short stereotype. Hip and wicked Spy magazine ran a June cover story this year on "The New Shortness," poking fun at power shorts. Spy says, "In hardly a decade, the short men have scrambled to the top. Suddenly, the squirts are in charge. And the rest of us are getting ... yes it's true ... short shrift."

A generation of women have been raised with the belief that it's okay to be smarter and stronger than a man, but they don't want to tower over their true loves.

"I have a lot of wonderful friends that are short," says Aniko Gaal, the fashion director of Garfinckel's, who stands 5 feet 8 1/2 in her stockings. "Of course, I don't make any distinctions between tall and short men as friends, but as a personal thing -- going back as far as high school and college -- taller men have always appealed to me.

"But I'll tell you something," Gaal offers up. "Short men really like tall women."

But love occasionally does look below the surface -- for the right man. Movie stars, Hollywood producers and entrepreneurs, according to Keyes, tend to be shorter than average, but rarely have trouble attracting women. Women, you see, want a taller man, unless he has something else going for him -- like cash, fame or a fondness for dancing.

"Romantically I think short men are awfully interesting," says Akers. Although her husband, Jim, is slightly taller than she, Akers says she's been titillated by shorter stuff.

"One of my best dancing partners ever was much shorter than I am. It was a long time ago at a ball called 'April in Hungary' or something like that. He asked me to dance and I said yes, reluctantly. And then I found myself dancing better than ever."

Why hasn't the world woken up to the advantages of the short man? Why do we still favor the tall men, the lanky lads with apologetic shoulders?

"We tall men are taller than anybody else, therefore we're more visible," economist John Kenneth Galbraith (6 feet 8) says he told French President Charles deGaulle in 1963. "Therefore we're more closely watched; therefore it follows our behavior is better; and therefore the world instinctively trusts tall men."

Keyes feels the advantage of height can be traced to childhood. "It's the way we looked at the world when we were very small," explains Keyes. "All of us spent time looking up, at grownups, at parents. They had power over us. They could pick us up. They could take us out of the crib." Give 'em an Inch

"You're not very tall, are you?" Carmen says to Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) in "The Big Sleep."

"Well, I try to be," he replies.

Instinctively the short guy knows that the world isn't ready to elect him, marry him, hire him or promote him. He knows that the world doesn't love him as much.

So he lies about his height.

"You claim the tallest you think you can claim without looking ridiculous. There's this inflation of height across the board," says Keyes. "Most guys my height (5 feet 7) will say they are 5 feet 10. It's a funny thing. Height is so important. It's supposed to be this silly, inconsequential subject, but it's so fraught with lies and problems.

"The studios used to say Alan Ladd was 5 feet 10," Keyes says. "But he was 5 feet 4."

Seeming Taller

Short women can put on a pair of heels. Short men mail-order elevators.

"I believe we have some members of Congress as customers," says Bob Martin (6 feet), president of Richlee Shoes, a 50-year-old mail order elevator shoe company in Frederick. "And a lot of actors. Mickey Rooney used to be the spokesman years ago."

Richlee sells shoes to 100,000 clients who want to be an inch to 3 inches taller. A hundred styles are available: spinoffs of Top-Siders, the L.L. Bean Blucher Moccasin, Western boots, dress shoes, bedroom slippers.

The company makes only men's shoes. "We are trying to make the men taller, and if we make a product that makes the women taller, it kind of defeats the purpose."

Short guys used to wear Gucci loafers, if they could afford them. Guccis had a higher heel and a rumored secret "lift" inside. You could gain a couple inches. But no longer, according to Petra Goette, general manager of Gucci, Washington. "Last year the heel's been lowered, in keeping with fashion," she says.

"There is a trend generally toward more self-acceptance," reports Keyes. "Although in the theater there is a natural acceptance of lifts, like toupees. Humphrey Bogart wore both, of course."

Offstage and without lifts, though, there are ways a short man can seem taller. Keyes says: "A shorter person can project himself as taller. And not by wearing elevator shoes, smoking a thick cigar, driving a stretch Cadillac, having a 6-foot blond wife. Height is strictly a relative concept. So if you surround yourself by big things, you'll only look smaller by contrast."

His recommendation: "If you want to look taller, get the smallest office possible. Work at a sewing table. Smoke Tiparillos. Drive a Honda. And go out with women smaller than yourself."