WE SHOULD ALWAYS be suspicious when the political anxieties of a nation are translated into a sudden cry for leadership. All eyes fix on one man. He is clad in armor, hoisted on a steed and sent into the lists. The world seems simple and safe again. There is no more need for thought. It does not matter what his policies are, or by what methods he will govern, the rescuer from complexity has been found. The people will applaud him in the streets like dogs wagging their tails when their masters come home.

I am of course not denying that we need leaders, and that leadership is partly the reflection of a personality. But in a democracy other virtues are needed than mere presence or even majesty, and we can begin with a telling example from the recent past even if it is from another country.

No one but Charles de Gaulle could have brought the Algerian war to an end without the outbreak of civil war in France. France was in fact virtually in a state of civil war when he was recalled to power. Exactly 20 years ago I was reporting the first of the referendums by which from time to time he buttressed his power, and thereafter at moments of difficulty and crisis he used not only referendums but television to attract the kind of popular support which he wanted.

His presence was undeniable. Haughtiness has its own appeal. But the more often I crossed the Channel to see how he was getting on, the more obvious it was that, although it was in his public appearances that his leadership was most obvious, it was not there that it was really being exercised or even had its foundations.

This irritated him a great deal. He used to like to clatter onto the screen, half paladin and half pantaloon, and summon the French to yet more sacrifices for la gloire and of course for himself. I would sit with the French in their cafes and bistros as he spoke. Dutifully the television set was turned on; even more dutifully the French kept their noses in their bouillabaisse. When he had finished they nodded at each other, "Le general a droit . . . The general is right": and then, like the wash of the Sargasso Sea in a heavy swell, the noise of mussels being inhaled from plate to mouth was resumed.

This indifference to his leadership once drove him to the complaint: "How can you govern a nation which makes 135 kinds of cheese?" But of course the French are going to go on making their cheeses, just as the Americans in the face of every appeal will go on driving their automobiles. Just as people's concern with their individual purposes is one of democracy's strengths, making it resistant to dictators, so it means that democracies must be led less by direct appeals than by the indirect ways of politics.

Le grand Charles was grand indeed. But that was not where his skill, and so eventually his power, lay. Although the Fifth Republic does not have the intricate parliamentary life of the Fourth Republic, de Gaulle did not just override the politicians, but he was in fact extraordinarily adept in keeping the other politicians in balance. He was very sensitive, for example, to any threat from the right. At the same time he was sensible enough to let the superb French administrative machinery do what it does best: run itself. He was also modest enough to understand that, although he had brought down the Fourth Republic, his own power depended on the economic policies which its politicians had introduced. In short, he was a politician.

It was when he forgot all this, and relied on direct appeals to the people, that he fell so abruptly. There is a lesson to be learned here as America tries to pull itself out of the doldrums at this election. The leadership that has been lacking has not been that of a resplendent or charismatic figure; it is the leadership that daily works its way through the maze of every other political body and interest in the country.

Another example is worth considering. If Charles de Gaulle was grand, so was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (He was even wrapped in a mantle!) But it is too easy to remember only the magnificent public appearances or the fireside chats, the wonderful smile, the cigarette holder, the bellowing voice, the arm held aloft in an open car until the rain streamed down his sleeve. But that was not primarily how he led. He resorted to it less often than is thought. There were not even all that many fireside chats.

He led mainly by never closing his door to any "pol" who wanted to see him. He would certainly not have turned our William McAdoo to talk to John Gardner about the state of the nation's soul. He appealed directly to the people only after he had already secured his political bases. He used such appeals as the final impulse to get moving what he had already started on the road. He was therefore able to appear the complete leader in public, because he had already exercised his leadership behind the scenes. Too much of the commentary which one hears just now, with the cry for leadership, draws the wrong and too simple lessons from his example.

One of the faults of the kind of leadership which I am criticizing is that it inevitably asks from the people what they cannot and should not be expected to give. This may take the glittering form of "Ask not what your country can do for you . . . " or the recent and more embarrassing form of "I need your help."

President Carter must be the only political leader who in a time of crisis has addressed the people by asking them, "Will you help me?" It is the president who is meant to help them. The only time that Roosevelt asked for help was when his dog Fala had been unfairly attacked: Since nice people don't kick small dogs, he was asking for popular sympathy at a level at which it could be returned.

But whether in its glittering or its banal form, the wrong kind of support is being asked from the people today. The people can give a leader very little of the political support which he needs between one election and the next. Even if he has the talents to excite them in one address on television, he is likely to turn the next day to find that Congress is unmoved, even that it has packed its bags and gone home, and given him nothing of what he asked because he did not ask it.

Increasingly, presidents are tempted to try to govern by circumventing the political system and appealing directly to the people, and then they are dismayed when the people predictably go back to making their cheeses and driving their automobiles. We may bemoan the fact that, as soon as the lines at the gas stations have evaporated, the energy shortage is forgotten. But the people will usually be selfish, and they even ought usually to be selfish. It is their selfishness which protects them from all kinds of unpleasant things which their politicians might do to them. Ask what your country can do for you is in ordinary times a wholly proper injunction in a democracy.

Richard Hofstadter once wrote that the Founding Fathers had few illusions about the virtues of the people, and that they did not expect to govern by joining virtue to virtue but by setting vice against vice. But since one obviously cannot appeal to the people by addressing oneself directly to their vices -- that would be carrying things too far -- the politician who makes such appeals will be reduced to making only a politically useless plea to their virtues.

Yet the temptations to do so have never been stronger. Since it is now more and more possible for candidates to get elected by forming their own relationship with the electors, they think that they can then govern by falling back on the same relationship if they are elected, and so carry into the White House and even into Congress the staff and the tricks on which they were able to rely in their campaigns. It is still the unpolitical candidate in office and not the real politician who should be there.

The politician has less and less chance or incitement to grow out of the candidate. Every new influence from the growth of the primaries to the power of television has diminished the importance of the political bodies which should intervene between the leaders and the people, sifting the popular voice on the way up to the president, just as they should sift his on the way down to the people, and so enabling them both to act more effectively on each other in political ways which will have a political impact as a result of making the political adjustments that are necessary. Instead of this we are to rely on a personal leadership that has no anchor and in the end no sail.

The fault of what we call "Rafshoonery" is not that it packages a president -- leaders have always been packaged since legends were built around an Alexander or a Caesar -- but that it packages a non-president because there is no politics to make him one.

The kind of cry for leadership that is not going up in the land is always politically illiterate, and I do not think that it is too much to say that America is not becoming politically illiterate. Largely as a result of television and of the distortions in the political system for which it is responsible, a whole generation now exists which has very little understanding of what politics is and so despises its methods even while then cursing the politicians.

It is these who are then ready to be cajoled into taking the shortcut to leadership. I personally thing that Don Quixote was the best and most saintly of men; but if I am looking for a politician, I will vote for Sancho Panza any time.