Except for lip service, the presidential candidates have grievously neglected the issue that, above all others, must be resolved to insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense.

Our only protection against being both closed down for want of energy and bankrupted by its cost is to find a substitute for oil that will make America self-sufficient again.

Our total failure thus far to succeed, or even to make a major effort, is courting disaster. In the seven years since Richard Nixon promised "energy independency by 1980," our dependence on imported energy has jumped from 33 percent to 55 percent.

Every involved segment of the American system has failed dismally -- three presidents, who have been unable to provide effective leadership; four Congresses, which have been immobilized by stupidity, demagoguery and the fear of inconveniencing the public; the oil companies, which have put profits ahead of the national welfare; the judicial system, with its endless litigation and crippling delays; the research establishment, with its squandered billions; the "cause" people, who have backed so many wrong horses that they ought by now to acknowledge a little self-doubt; the public, which refuses to believe a shortage exists and panics into outbursts of me-first every time some manifestation of it becomes visible; the press, which has so obviously failed to educate.

Nixon acquiesced in the first oil price leap, in the dictated nationalization of American-owned oil properties, in the unilateral tearing up of long-term contracts. His successors have been just as listless in coping with the oil companies' collaboration with OPEC; their refusal to develop the energy the nation needs; the breakdown of government bureaucracy in everything but increasing its numbers and expenditures; the growing energy production paralysis caused by flaws in our legal and judicial system; the conflict between environmentalism and energy production; the proliferation of me-first groups.

The most aggressive of the oil oligarchs has been Libya's Muammar Qaddaf In 1969 he claimed leadership of a nation of only 2 million people, most of them destitute and scattered over a vast desert-dominated land. He has been unpopular even among most Arabs. On feet of clay, seemingly, he stood before the industrial world.

Yet he ordered the American and British to vacate their military bases and expelled 25,000 Italian descendants of the old colonial regime. As Qaddafi suspected, the oil companies were far less willing than he to go without oil profits. He divided them by imposing selective cutbacks first on Occidental, then Exxon, then others.

To oversimplify, after a period of confrontations and capitulations, Qaddafi conquered the oil companies one by one. After he was through, Opec heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, who had been watching from the sidelines, jumped in and got the same terms Qaddafi had won.

The Qaddafi-led victories of the early 1970s established the industrial world's acquiescence. Qaddafi simply put chips on the table that his Western adversaries have thus far been unwilling to call. His career has been a testimony to the vulnerability of the mighty, cautious industrial nations.

From Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter, whose brother Billy has been connected with Libya, the leaders of the world's greatest industrial power have let Qaddafi manipulate them. This has helped to confirm the oil companies in the belief that their intersts lay not with their own country's welfare, but in facilitating the Arab oil gouge.

It will take another Manhattan Project to mobilize the nation and create energy from another source. But there are other solutions available, such as nationalization of the oil industry; increased government controls short of nationalization; a power play to break the OPEC cartel; a revised tax and incentive policy aimed at energy development; the free-market approaches of deregulation; developing such alternatives as solar energy, gasohol, geothermal engergy, nuclear energy and oil-bearing vegetation.

Perhaps what is really needed is to put the whole society under a microscope, to dissect what has gone so sour in the American system as to explain a performance so pathetic, aimless, ignoble, listless, ignorant and self-indulgent.