FIFTY YEARS AGO, when many of us were very young, Norman Thomas was our leader. Running for president for the second time on the Socialist ticket, he had drawn to himself and his standard many thousands who saw in him a viable alternative to President Herbert Hoover, Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Communist Party leader William Z. Foster.

His 1932 campaign was unsuccessful but brilliant in its operation. He was not elected that year, as he was not in 1928 and as he was not in 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1948. Six times a presidential candidate might seem like a bad addiction, but Thomas went about it without a loss of dignity, eliciting the admiration if not the votes of American citizens who considered him among "the best and the brightest."

Some years later, when AFL-CIO President George Meany pronounced a dubious political neutrality by declaring that he would vote for neither Richard Nixon nor George McGovern, he puffed on his cigar and heaved what was meant to be a nostalgic sigh. Said he, "If only Norman Thomas were alive." He got the expected laughs from some of the assembled reporters, but nobody believed him. He never voted for Norman Thomas when he could have. In this he was typical of many millions of Americans who would say between elections -- or even the day after any given election -- "I wish I had voted for Norman." Voting for Norman Thomas always represented a choice that only the young in heart and the clear in head were capable of making. It is he who first urged men and women to "vote their hopes rather than their fears."

Thomas' 1932 campaign sparkled. He shone against Hoover, Roosevelt -- who had not yet begun to soar -- and Foster. Norman, then nearly 48, was a handsome presence: 6 feet 4, keen blue eyes, a bold, bald head, tanned, thoughtful, with smiling face and a rousing voice which could boom and cut. He had the gift of expository language without talking down. His passionate utterance was often relieved by humor. To the campaign he brought high purpose and daring which his opponents could envy but never match.

He possessed great spiritual magnetism, but his political influence never brought him political power. At a time when the country foundered in deep unemployment, swamped in its worst depression, Norman Thomas came forth explaining a philosophy without being doctrinaire.

As a socialist, he was criticized by the communists for not being Marxist and by the cautious as being too idealistic or too far to the left for the average voter. Moreover, he was what is known as an intellectual. He might even have committed an indiscretion by entering the 1932 campaign as the author of a book, "America's Way Out." In it, he set forth a "program for democracy" in which he attempted to cope with issues shunned by other candidates.

He often thought out loud, much to the consternation of orthodox socialists, young and old. He often was hailed as the second Eugene Victor Debs -- a comparison he accepted as flattering, but, in candid self-appraisal, he rejected as inappropriate. Both had eloquence, but Debs, the magnificent agitator, never questioned the premises of his socialist faith.

Thomas' activity as speaker and organizer was so extensive that one wondered when he found time to think. But he thought fast and intensively. In the first pages of "America's Way Out," he said his book was born of two desires: "First, to check up on my own thinking and to answer the inward questioning that has come nearer to interrupting some of my speeches than any heckler; the second, to set forth my position more fully and carefully than is ever possible in any one speech or article." He thought also that he might attempt "to correct some of the absurd misunderstandings of socialism still current among non-socialists, and start among socialists and near-socialists a healthy facing of facts and an examination of those stereotyped answers which every great movement develops in lieu of real wisdom."

This last sentence struck some of the more partisan socialists as arrogrant. Here he was, a comparatively new recruit -- and already questioning orthodoxy. He sought always to avoid the pitfalls of "dogmatic and oracular utterance." To those who tended to sneer at his insistence on the importance of immediate demands as being "reformist", as "superficial" and, above all, of not being "militant," he replied patiently, but sharply: "It is rather dangerous nonsense to conclude that every practical program is merely reformist and to go on uttering great generalizations about human affairs as the whole duty of man. So complex is our life that it is increasingly dubious whether a responsible man has a right to indulge in the most well-merited denunciation of wrong social ideals and institutions without at least an outline of a practical alternative program in mind. . . . Wisdom for the future is not automatically born of righteous indignation or even of correct generalizations."

Norman Thomas' operating base was the League for Industrial Democracy, an organization separate from the Socialist Party. The latter was enthusiastic but minuscule. It believed it was at the dawn of a political renaissance. Though it had begun to attract students, it drew also on the traditional and sometimes reverential support of the members of the so-called socialist garment unions in the New York and Chicago area, groups of Midwestern and California socialists and a broad scatteration of those who had voted for Debs in his presidential campaigns from 1900 to 1920.

Thomas was at home with college audiences and union gatherings. He brought a quiver and smile to the faces of strikers and the unemployed. With Thomas up there, they were no longer alone.."Norman came to us when everybody was running from us," said James H. Maurer, former president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor and Thomas' running mate in 1928 and 1932.

As the 1932 campaign gathered momentum, he was supported by men like John Dewey, Prof. Paul Douglas, Reinhold Niebuhr, Heywood Broun and Elmer Davis, the brilliant writer and political analyst. (Ten years later, Davis became the director of war information -- OWI.) The campaign developed a lilt. Along with labor songs that were belted out in all sorts of places, it was a time when the Gershwin-Kaufman-Ryskind satiric musical comedy, "Of Thee I Sing," supplied a theater of relief from the dismal sights of the unemployed selling apples on city streets.

Money-raising was a perhaps thing. The total campaign chest for that year was estimated at not much more than $50,000. It came from collections at mass meeting to which admission was charged. Reporters wondered aloud that overflow crowds would pay to hear a presidential candidate.

Davis, who had modestly joined the Thomas campaign by volunteering to write releases and enlist prominent Americans for Thomas, said: "I'm no more a Marxist than I am a Mohamedan, but the socialist program is the only one that seriously attempts to cure our disease. It probably won't win this fall, but if it commands strong support, it may force the other parties to face a few facts and to consider national instead of local interests." He corresponded with a wide variety of persons to win them over to the Independent Committee for Norman Thomas, including William Allen White, the renowned editor from Emporia, Kan., who said he wished he had the courage to do what Davis was doing but, alas, his obligations to Kansas were binding.

As a Princeton man, Thomas became a bright, particular star in the fixed firmament of that establishment. When he joined the Socialist Party in the midst of World War I, became a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and served as executive director of the League for Industrial Democracy -- well, when that happened, he was barred from speaking on the Princeton campus. But in 1932, the liberal members of the faculty won a major victory when they pressed the university to award an honorary degree to Thomas. He was somewhat reluctant to accept this belated benediction. One of the younger members of his small staff note wryly that the abolitionist Wendell Phillips did not deliver the Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard until after the slaves were freed. But wisely, to the relief of the embattled faculty, he accepted the honorary doctorate.

Among other things, the socialist platform of 1932 was keyed to the importance of collective bargaining, the immediate amelioration of the tragedy and misery of the depression and economic policies that would help bring about economic recovery. Thomas and his associates thought big. His platform called for a $10-billion federal program of public works and unemployment relief, the provision of capital and equipment to put the unemployed to work producing food, clothing and shelter for their own use. His platform also called for a six-hour day and five-day week with no wage reduction, free public employment agencies, compulsory unemployment insurance based on contributions by government and employers, old age pensions for all over 60, health and maternity insurance, improved minimum wage laws, abolition of child labor, government aid to farmers and small homeowners to protect them against mortgage foreclosures and a moratorium on taxes imposed upon destitute farmers and unemployed workers.

Enthusiasm for Thomas was mounting. Consternation in the two major parties was driving state and national politicans into a tizzy about this new phenomenon. Reporters began to cover Thomas with attention. In various states, strong-arm tactics were used to bar the Socialist Party ticket from the ballot, following the lead of the juridical mayhem committed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which handed down a decision that disqualified Thomas from a place on the ballot in that state. The threat of the rising Thomas tide was confirmed by the Oklahoma News. It had Thomas coming in second and Hoover third in Oklahoma. In 1928, Hoover had carried the state by a wide margin.

In 1932, Thomas addressed a packed house of Washington correspondents at the National Press Club which gave him a standing ovation and cheered him to the echo. Paul Y. Anderson of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that here was a candidate who had no special trains to travel in, slept in upper berths and walked into a room without an expensive entourage. Thomas was "a fresh gust of air in a foul room."

With election day two weeks off, Oswald Garrison Villard reported that Thomas had received 106,000 votes in the Literary Digest poll, or 5.3 percent of the total. This was determined by experts as meaning 2.5 to 3 million votes in the national election. Alas, Thomas received only 887,000 votes.

For more than 50 years, Thomas placed himself in the forefront of issues which others shunned. Nobody understood earlier or more clearly than he the core issues of our era: civil liberties and civil rights, peace and the development and support of the labor movement in all its ramifications.

His words and his thoughts were his own. Nobody ever "ghosted" a line of his many books or his 10,000 speeches, or attempted to write a scenario for his political and social conduct.

Years ago, I was fortunate to have been an associate of Norman Thomas in many of his activities. It did not matter that he never won an election. His agenda -- right there in the daily newspaper -- was as full as that of any mayor, governor or president. His anteroom at the League for Industrial Democracy was constantly crowded with people who sought his help, from the organization of a soup kitchen to the creation of a blueprint for municipal reform or a new social order.

When the New Deal swept the nation's liberals into the mood of self-congratulation, he shook up the nation -- from President Roosevelt down -- by dramatizing the plight of the sharecroppers of Arkansas. But agitation was not enough. For him, it was a natural step to help organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, probably the first biracial farmworkers organization. Through Norman Thomas, city dwellers and urban workers developed an identity of interest with rural and migratory workers. For him, the social and the economic exploitation of the city and the farm were parts of the same challenge.

He was the founder of the Emergency Committee for Strikers Refief -- a "sort of Labor Red Cross" as he modestly described it. It began in the late 1920s and went on for years. The textile workers in New Jersey and in Marion, N. C., the mine workers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Illinois, the onion wokers in Ohio -- all came to Norman Thomas. There seemed to be nobody else.

Even the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, unable at that time to pay the rent or keep the offices warm, sought his help in raising funds to keep going. He never exacted or expected a quid pro quo. He had a deep concern for the extension of democracy in every part of our society, including the trade union movement. When the organization drives in rubber, in auto, in electrical industries got under way, Norman Thomas became both a financial support and a moral credential for the emerging leadership. Because his appeals for funds were timely, the effectiveness of the aid he gathered achieved a multiplying effect. The sums were not great; the impact was.

His intellectual energy was the instrument of his compassionate concerns. While his constituency was global, it was to the generations of the young that his appeal never lessened -- even after he was stricken with his last illness.

Two months before he died in December 1968, he was finishing a book. He would spend his mornings, flat on his back, dictating chapters, revising. He was most anxious, he said, to have the youth of the nation understand that there are worthwhile choices to be made in life, short of the perfect and the ideal. Even to short-term goals, one can also give oneself utterly.