The rare occasions when Republicans wrestle with intellectual matters make one wish the occasions were even rarer. Consider what occurred in the process of selecting a new head for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Some Republicans promoted the candidacy of a professor who believes that the first Republican president was unbalanced, evil and a national disaster. This provoked those, like me, who revere Lincoln and still smolder with indignation about the Kansas- Nebraska Act of 1854.

Mel Bradford of the University of Dallas supported George Wallace's 1972 presidential campaign and represents the Nostalgic Confederate remnant in the conservative movement. He won the endorsement of 16 senators, some of whom, I suspect, have not curled up at night with his writings. The president's choice, William J. Bennett of North Carolina, is still being opposed by Bradfordites, such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who is threatening to stall Bennett's confirmation. Bradfordites should contritely retire to a quiet corner and consider the entertaining inquiries that would have enlivened any confirmation hearings for their choice:

"Professor Bradford, elaborate on what you call 'Lincoln's lasting and terrible impact on the nation's destiny.'"

"Professor Bradford, leaving aside your denunciations of Lincoln's 'Cromwellian' and 'Bonapartist' attributes, his 'paranoid style' and 'antinomian morality,' his establishment of a 'Northern Gulag' and his other 'high crimes,' could you explain your opinion that a 'useful analogue' to Lincoln is Hitler?"

"Professor Bradford, the Senate would be fascinated to hear more about your idea that 'there is a great question in philosophy as to the ethical propriety of one man's having property in another. It is equivalent to the question of whether monarchy and democracy are valid systems in politics.'"

"Professor Bradford, when you say that 'like any human institution, the Southern social system was as good or bad as the people who administered its regimen,' are you not saying that the 'regime' of slavery was good when administered by 'good' slave-drivers?"

"Golly, Professor Bradford, do tell more about how 'an expansive view of "natural rights" with regard to Negroes has undermined our inherited constitutional system.'"

Oh, my.

Senators might not even have had time to dwell on Bradford's volunteered preview of his NEH administrative policies: "I'd give more (grants) to Texas and Oklahoma. . . ." The nomination of Bradford would be a Christmas present to the Democratic Party, and evidence of Republican philistinism-- indifference toward the Republican past and today's culture.

Although Bradford's argument is couched in strident and opaque language (I do not know what he means by Lincoln's "gnosticism," but he is not conferring a compliment), he is no philistine. His argument involves less of a misunderstanding of what Lincoln did than a profoundly mistaken moral judgment about what Lincoln did.

Bradford says Lincoln replaced America's "positive pluralism" with a "uniformitarian" doctrine, turning his "private morality" regarding slavery into law. What Lincoln actually did was insist that there are closed questions even in an open society.

The great crisis of American history was defined in a statement by a senatorial candidate in the Middle West in 1858: "We of Illinois . . . tried slavery, kept it up for 12 years and, finding that it was not profitable, we abolished it for that reason." With three words--"for that reason"--Stephen Douglas defined slavery as a question of price, not principle. This was the logic of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise by permitting the people of Kansas and Nebraska territories to vote slavery in or out.

To the South then (and, I gather, Bradford today) the issue was whether the federal government could constitutionally legislate morality regarding conduct (such as slavery) that was, in Bradford's words, "not covered by the original federal covenant," the Constitution. Lincoln became the greatest statesman in the history of democracy because he drew a line in the dust, limiting popular sovereignty. He argued that Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, by expressing moral "indifference" (Lincoln's word) about slavery, were teaching and enshrining the proposition that "there is no right principle of action but self-interest."

Today, as then--as always--the central problem of American life is that a nation dedicated to that proposition cannot endure. The great test of leadership always is the task of getting people to listen to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature," and thereby rise above self-interestedness to public spiritedness.

As the 16th Republican president tries to do that, it has been unseemly for some people in his party to advocate a conspicuous position for a shrill despiser of the first Republican President. Political eccentrics can contribute to the public stock of harmless pleasure, but it is not harmless for a great political party to mock its noble past.