On the television screen one evening last week there he was, the Artificial Man, courting the beleaguered folks of Iowa with his opportunistic "pin-stripe populism," as the political reporters call it. ABC's evening newscast was showing samples of the TV commercials to which the poor Iowans are being subjected, and Richard Gephardt's was by any reasonable standard the most offensive: At its end, as he droned solemnly on about the many wonderful things he has in store for the nation, an American flag slowly emerged from the mists and wreathed itself around his impeccably blow-dried head.

But was that really Richard Gephardt? It looked for all the world like Bill McKay. Remember him? Ran for the Senate in California in 1972. Handsome blond fellow, just like Gephardt, except more handsome. Won the Democratic nomination easily, but had an uphill battle in the general election against the Republican incumbent, Crocker Jarmon. Then his campaign caught fire, as campaigns inexplicably can, and at the wire he won a narrow but decisive victory.

Bill McKay: Does the name ring a bell? If it doesn't, you need a refresher course in American politics, because between the two major parties we've got a dozen Bill McKays running for the presidency and one of them is going to get it. McKay, you see, is the central character in the movie "The Candidate," the best political satire on film and a movie to which, in this lamentable political year, we should be paying the closest attention.

Which is what I decided to do only minutes after watching Gephardt's cynical attempt to manipulate the emotions of voters in Iowa. I hustled down to the video store to rent a copy of "The Candidate" to see for myself whether, as I suspected would be the case, the movie is even more pertinent now than it was when first released 16 years ago. My hunch proved to be correct. Nowhere -- not in fiction, in journalism, in political science, in television -- is there a more devastatingly accurate depiction of contemporary politics than the one this movie provides; it's an essential American document, one that hardly deserves the neglect into which it seems to have fallen.

The movie is a direct outgrowth of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 campaign, though McKay is not a fictionalized McCarthy: John Tunney, whom California sent to the Senate in 1970, would seem to be more like it. The author of the screenplay, Jeremy Larner, was in 1968 a very minor novelist ("Drive, He Said") who attached himself to the McCarthy campaign as a speech writer and for a time worked with David Garth, the pioneering political consultant. Though Larner subsequently wrote a work of nonfiction about his experiences ("Nobody Knows: Reflections on the McCarthy Campaign of 1968"), it was in his cinematic examination of them that he really hit home; quite deservedly, he won an Academy Award for his screenplay.

"The Candidate" begins with a concession speech. An exhausted, disappointed candidate, who had been persuaded to run for office in a race he was bound to lose, gamely admits defeat. Meanwhile, in the wings, a couple of political types quietly converse. "Next time we'll get a live one," the first says. "He never had a chance," the other replies. Then, as the credits roll, the first -- Marvin Lucas, brilliantly played by Peter Boyle -- heads for the airport and California, where this hired gun thinks he has a "live one."

His name is Bill McKay and he is played by Robert Redford, in the best performance of that limited actor's career. He's a lawyer in his thirties, working for Legal Aid on poverty, the environment and other issues. He's utterly unknown, but he's also well connected -- his father, John J. McKay, is a popular former governor -- and articulate and handsome. He knows what he believes in, but is politically inexperienced -- the precise opposite of Gephardt, whose convictions blow with the wind but who knows precisely what he wants. McKay is startled when Lucas proposes that he enter the Senate race, but when Lucas assures him that he can say and do as he pleases, McKay gives his consent.

For a time he seems to have his way. At his first press conference he declares himself in favor of busing and welfare; he begins to attract a bit of attention for his candor and his willingness to buck the tide of evasion and euphemism washing through political discourse. But gradually, as his entourage steadily grows and as he finds himself under the tutelage of a specialist in television commercials, his frankness begins to diminish. From time to time he speaks out in private against his new mentors, but his protests are weak; he has caught the bug, he wants the office, and he is now ready to do whatever is required to win it.

He is no longer in charge of his own campaign -- though in truth he never really was -- but is the mouthpiece for the real candidates: the consultants and media managers who shape him -- or, more precisely, his "image" -- into whatever they think they can sell. Everything is controlled by the camera; he rushes to be filmed at a fire in Malibu, only to be upstaged by his opponent, who zooms in to announce that the president will declare a national disaster area and that the "Jarmon Watershed Bill" will be promptly introduced in the Senate.

It's all show biz, and McKay willingly plays along. Only once, as he's being driven from one engagement to another, does he acknowledge that he's playing the lead in a farce. In a state of near-exhaustion, he begins to parody the buzz words he uses in his speeches and commercials. "Our courage on the gridiron ..." he mumbles, "... the basic indifference that made the country great ... Vote once, vote twice, for Bill McKay -- you middle-class honkies." Then it is on to Election Day and to victory, after which he grabs his Machiavelli, takes him to an empty room and says, "Marvin, what do we do now?" Before Lucas can answer -- he has, of course, no answer at all -- the crowd bursts in and sweeps McKay away, into the empty limelight.

It's powerful, authentic stuff. Only in "All the King's Men" did a movie ever come so close to capturing the nitty-gritty of politics: not merely the cynicism and opportunism of it, but also the excitement and camaraderie and rough humor. Even in the age of the 30-second commercial, politics is still fun, and Larner captures this raw energy in his script, as does Michael Ritchie in his direction. "The Candidate," though, is anything but a love song to contemporary politics. It is a biting delineation of the central reality that, beneath the smooth surface of what we see on television, there is nothing. Bill McKay, his bright teeth glittering for 30 seconds, is of a piece with Richard Gephardt, unashamedly wrapping himself in the flag: all image, no substance.