When we are tempted to fret about zealots trying to muzzle the 2 Live Crew or punish eccentric performance artists or expunge vernacular texts of the salt and pepper of life, we should remember just how bad it can really get here in the United States. Whether it serves as solace or warning is up to you.

Fittingly, it is an official U.S. publication, the National Archives magazine Prologue, that reminds us of the time, less than 50 years ago, when the postmaster general was regularly scrutinizing the manuscripts Esquire had prepared for publication to see if their contents would pass muster as second-class mailing material.

The U.S. Post Office files examined by Jean Preer remind us also of censorship's handmaiden. During this baleful episode in the early 1940s, Arnold Gingrich, today referred to as a "legendary" editor, played the role of meek supplicant to Frank Walker, the cretinous scold then occupying the postmaster general's office. Even Walker eventually saw pre-publication approval as impractical (and doubtless politically dangerous) and simply warned Gingrich that Esquire's second-class mailing rates would be jeopardized if he published anything lewd, obscene or lascivious, according to the terms of the notorious 1873 Comstock Act.

Esquire was then all the rage with U.S. boys in uniform, and serviced their needs with all manner of ribaldry and cheesecake so tame today as to be quaint. The famous Varga Girl, with her scanty coverings and driven-snow smile, was such a staple. Soon enough and sure enough, the Post Office ordered the magazine to show cause why its second-class privileges shouldn't be revoked, and the hearings recall some of First Amendment jurisprudence's most hilarious exchanges and eloquent pronouncements -- and even an unexpected echo of the current cry that Esquire's June 1990 issue on the American wife demeans her. The magazine eventually beat the rap in the Supreme Court.

Preer writes a scrupulously balanced narrative full of publishing and legal history and the edgy hand of state in time of war. Prologue is especially interesting this quarter (spring), with an essay parsing the Declaration of Independence for its "stylistic artistry"; an exploration of leopard-skin rugs, silver swords and other American spoils of the Korean War, subsequently returned; and a recollection, 10 years after the fact, of Jimmy Carter's ill-fated retreat to the mountaintop of Camp David with his advisers to rethink his presidency.

What these diverse subjects have in common are their source material, holdings of the National Archives. Prologue (four issues, $12), care of National Archives Trust Fund, P.O. Box 100793, Atlanta, Ga. 30384.

Make Mine Moxie Yet another magazine has materialized for women of a certain age. It calls itself Moxie, and it's aimed at readers who find Lear's, say, too fizzy. For July, the main feature is about "Great Old Dudes" -- men of a certain age -- and what's so great about them (confidence, hands, poise, investments and the fact that they're through being daddies). Also where to find them. Moxie is light, pleasant fare. The reading is brief, the writing is breezy, the mix is conventional, the design matter-of-fact. Write Moxie (12 issues, $24.95) at P.O. Box 3784, Escondido, Calif. 92025-9575.

Gauntlets National Review, conscience of conservatives, now wants to be the bane of George Bush's new existence as a fellow who's willing to consider new taxes. In the July 23 issue, as might have been expected, the magazine blazes all its guns against the president's "cave-in" on new taxes. More nettlesome to Bush in this election year, however, is a companion editorial listing the 119 members of the House and Senate (all but four of them Republicans) who signed a "no-new-taxes" pledge. "We remind these men and women that they will have to run for office again ... They must declare as a group that they stand true to their word and will block a budget settlement that raises taxes."

A third editorial poses an even more direct challenge to four major Republican Party insiders, would-be heirs to the Reagan legacy and would-be presidents, to stand up and lead the fight against Bush's betrayal: Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, Newt Gingrich and Phil Gramm. Well, gentlemen?

Kangaroos, Eskimos, Lefties Of all the new magazines to stir excitement, it would probably not be subtitled "The Review of Academic Life," and maybe not even titled, snootily, Lingua franca. But stimulating, surprising, substantive and sophisticated Lingua franca looks to be.

In the first issue, dated June, Andrew Bowers describes the kangaroo tenure system that has frustrated young professors at Harvard for two decades; Eddie Stern explores the bizarre academic subculture of "slash" literature, in which (for instance) Star Trek's Kirk and Spock are mischievously cast in new stories as lovers; Geoffrey Pullum wittily explodes the linguistic chestnut that Eskimos have 97 words for snow (they have two); Michael Hirschorn sardonically imagines "A World Without Lefties" on the American campus; and Leon Bostein, president of Bard and Simon's Rock colleges, speaks with striking wisdom on the issue of sexual harassment in the academic setting.

The service departments in Lingua franca are no less original in inspiration. Under "Documents in Search of Scholars" we are alerted to the (far) future availability of archival material, such as the papers of George S. Patton, David Ogilvy, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. "Jobtracks" tells you who got tenured where. "Inside Publishing" includes regular answers, discipline by discipline, to the timeless question "What Do Editors Really Want?" Even the teasers for the next issue are mouth-watering: Umberto Eco will design his ideal "national university for a European principality."

The only slightly bad news is that this charming little magazine doesn't start publishing on a regular basis until December. If you want to be tenured from the outset, as it were, send $19.95 (six issues) to Lingua franca, 172 E. Boston Post Rd., Mamaroneck, N.Y. 10580.