I know just how ''the other candidates'' feel as they watch the orgy of attention that the media is lavishing upon Gary Hart.
Years ago, just after my 1960s stint in government, I went to a noted university to speak -- only to learn that Timothy Leary, the guru of the rising drugs cult, was speaking there that same night. I got a fair-to-middlin' audience of professors and old fogies while Leary got a standing-room-only mob of students and young teachers.
''Never underestimate the power of notoriety,'' the dean said to me. ''We can't get 500 students to listen to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, but bring on someone convicted of almost any crime and the kids will hang from the rafters.''
So it is in American politics. USA Today reports that during the Dec. 14-18 period, Gary Hart got 39.31 minutes of network television coverage, while Michael Dukakis got 2.84 minutes, Bruce Babbitt 2.75 and the other Democratic candidates less than a minute. Republicans George Bush and Bob Dole each received six minutes of coverage, even though both were involved in the high-drama business of the Reagan-Gorbachev agreement on abolishing short- and intermediate-range missiles.
Hart showed us that, as the dean said, a little scandalous behavior goes a long way in America.
But how far does it go?
Far enough to propel Hart to front-runner status, ahead of Jesse Jackson, Dukakis and the others nationally, and to put Hart at the head of the Democratic field trying to win the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses. The latest Des Moines Register poll showed Hart favored by 29 percent of those surveyed, with Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois dropping from 35 percent to 18.
But the current media fascination with Hart, the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, could become a snare and a delusion for Hart and his supporters. The notoriety that gets the former senator from Colorado on national TV will not necessarily win him the Democratic nomination or the presidency.
My observation, based on attending many political conventions and talking to many politically active people, is that there is a ''perverse'' 30 percent who will always vow support for a Hart, blame the media and claim that a little adultery on the part of a presidential candidate is nobody's business. But a slightly larger number of Americans declare furiously that it is their business, which is why Chappaquiddick remains a formidable barrier to Ted Kennedy's ever reaching the presidency.
Because of this, I think, Gary Hart is unelectable, and it would be suicidal for the 1988 Democratic Convention to give him the nomination. The party leaders know this, and they aren't about to be bowled over by glamorous notoriety.
Or could they be?
We have seen, since the years of President Eisenhower, that American presidential elections ride more on charisma, skills as a TV communicator, racial and ethnic demagoguery, than on any candidate's position on things such as a budget deficit, the arms race, racial injustice and the needs of the poor and homeless.
Hart is gambling that glamorous notoriety will make people forget Donna Rice, Bimini and all things related. I say that he is just as wrong now as he was when he thought he could keep secret his escapade aboard ''Monkey Business.''