Readers of a certain age--God bless them every one--may recall the name of Harold E. Stassen. So, too, may solvers of crossword puzzles, as "Stassen" is often the answer to "Perpetual candidate." It would be amazing, though, if many others have the foggiest idea who Stassen is, given our great national amnesia when history rears its head. That is a pity, for Stassen provides an instructive contrast to the ever-expanding crowd of men and women now offering themselves for the highest office to which a citizen of this fair land can aspire.

Stassen--now in his early nineties--is a native of Minnesota who took an early interest in politics. While in college he helped create the Young Republican League and in 1938 he achieved the governorship of his home state, at an age so tender (31) that he was known to some as the "Boy Wonder." He served two terms and was elected to a third before resigning to enter the Navy in World War II, and in 1948 he made a strong run for the Republican presidential nomination, losing to Thomas E. Dewey.

Having thus tasted the heady brew of national attention, and having won considerable respect within a Republican Party that was still hospitable to progressive and even liberal views, Stassen became intoxicated with presidential ambitions. He tried for the GOP nomination in 1952 and 1956, losing each time to the vastly more electable Dwight Eisenhower, and continued to offer his services into the 1960s, by which time he had become a figure of considerable ridicule.

Yet Stassen during his years of political activity was a serious and accomplished public servant, deeply committed to the positions for which he labored, however unwise some of them may have been. He served in numerous appointive as well as elective jobs, at the federal as well as the state level, always with a strong commitment to the public interest, sometimes with distinction. His failure to acknowledge political realities and exit the arena gracefully diminished his reputation, yet history (to whatever extent it remembers him at all) probably will be kinder to him than his contemporaries were.

How, by contrast, may history judge the likes of Pat Buchanan, Warren Beatty and Donald Trump? Each of these has either proposed himself for the presidency or is eyeing it flirtatiously, yet none has the slightest qualification for the job, unless one considers rank ambition and vanity to fit that description. The press, which ought to be laughing all three out of the room, regards them almost as adoringly as they regard themselves, in the process merely heightening the credibility of men who have, in fact, no credibility at all.

Poor Stassen at least had, on his curriculum vitae, three terms as governor of Minnesota and, before that, eight years as an elected county attorney. But the men who stand before us today are a hack newspaper columnist and television gasbag (Buchanan), a Hollywood film star and Lothario (Beatty) and a New York real estate developer whose name is a synonym for vulgarity (Trump). Apart from one meaningless exception--Buchanan's service as a poison-pen speechwriter in the Nixon White House--none has any experience in public service and none has displayed any genuine interest in it.

Buchanan is the George Wallace of the 1990s, except that at least Wallace could claim to have held elective office; he is the spokesman for, and exploiter of, hatred and resentment and division. Beatty is a movie-star leftie who, having made an interminable, insufferable film ("Reds") about John Reed and other ancient lefties, came to imagine himself a political and moral theorist of Tocquevillian dimensions. As for Trump, he is bad taste embodied and exemplified, as well as the owner of the biggest ego this side of Barbra Streisand.

Which leaves us to ask: Why isn't she running? If in this new age of presidential politics the most important claim anyone can make upon the office is an insatiable need for air time and applause, then surely Streisand should make herself available. So, too, should Dennis Rodman and John McLaughlin and Madonna and . . . now that you mention all these folks, why isn't Jesse Jackson running again, or H. Ross Perot? If the race for the presidency has turned into the Ego Sweepstakes, then all qualified candidates certainly must present themselves.

Ah, you are saying, a fat ego is always a prerequisite for the presidency, and indeed that is true; thinking big, and thinking well of oneself, come with the territory. But until now both the electorate and the press understood that ambition, however requisite, must be tempered by seasoning and ability. That is no longer the case. To the press and the public, madly infatuated with the world according to People magazine, novelty and buzz are what matter most, indeed may be the only things that matter at all.

So it is that old-fashioned yours truly, trapped in that world, suddenly is awash in waves of nostalgia for Harold Stassen. The man had his own vanity and his own ambition, and both were compounded by a strong streak of foolishness, but he was at heart a public servant. Buchanan, Beatty and Trump are merely fools. That is why, at next year's conventions, the bands will play not "Happy Days Are Here Again" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" but "Send In the Clowns."

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.