"I WAS HIS unqualified hero-worshipper," Walter Lippmann wrote of Theodore Roosevelt, arguing that TR was "the image of a great leader and the prototype of presidents."

This comes to mind when considering the 1988 presidential contestants -- for it is not, to say the least, a year or an age for unqualified hero-worshipping. To put it nastily, in our hearts we know they're slight. Or worse.

Those of us who are spectators sense that each political campaign, like each war, is different, and that it may take a while to grasp the difference. We know the nation has faced rotten choices before -- Harding and Cox come to mind. We also remember that seemingly aberrant choices -- Goldwater in '64 and McGovern in '72 -- may signal a kind of change.

But what is unsettling this time is a belief that an unwelcome outcome has been ordained so early. Especially befuddling is the apparent inability of what remains of the Democratic and Republican parties to urge others on, to suggest that the choices really could be better, or even bluntly to inform those who haven't a snowball's chance that it is hurtful to their party and country to run around seeking approval in this fashion.

It may be undemocratic and meanspirited to urge runners not to race, but when it comes down to it -- and it has -- what is the difference between a number of the current office-seekers and someone like Harold Stassen? A very thin line may be all that separates self-confidence from a mild form of psychosis. In fact, almost everyone I know has entertained the idea that several of the announced candidates are certifiable.

The problem could be that, in a very American way, we are nearing political anarchy. "This process belongs to the people," says Democratic Party chairman Paul Kirk of Gary Hart's return. But, as Lippann noted 60 years ago, "Distance alone lends enchantment to the view that masses of human beings ever cooperate in any complex affair without a central machine managed by a very few people." In fact no one has a clue as to whom the "process" belongs these days.

Not to the political parties, where no "central machine" is to be found. When Hart turned on "the media" and appealed to "the people," he accurately assessed, by omission, the parties' role. The nation once relied on a two-party system, counted on the two parties being pretty much the same and depended upon professionals to do some sorting out.

Now the old saw that anyone can be president seems something to be taken literally. Voters are asked to pick a president as they would choose a town supervisor, which gives the illusion of pure democracy but in fact makes democratic selection little more than an intuitive leap, aided and abetted by television. The press plays an exaggerated role because it provides an organizing principle. But if television has altered the process, it cannot be accused of altering the participants.

Bewailing the presidential field is not new, though it's probably more intense this year because the Soviets seem to have gotten themselves a Russian Teddy Roosevelt while we aim for something less. A list of beguiling proposals on how to improve the candidate-producing machinery is put forth quadrennially:

Recasting the primaries, it is said, might entice people like Bill Bradley. A parliamentary system would ensure that party leaders like Alan Simpson and Tom Foley were in the mix. This year, only Bob Dole is an authentic parliamentary candidate. The suggestions are predictable and increasingly desperate, spurred by the possible capture of the nominations by tenacious activists or suspected lunatics.

This may not be fair. When one gets upset about the 1988 race, it is reassuring to think that among the 13 are diligent legislators struggling to be serious in the glare of public light. Nor is it fair that the contenders face the presence of what might be called the ironic reflex -- a modern sense that the very idea of seeking the presidency is comic. Least fair is the omnipresent superficiality of modern campaigning -- it is so petty to judge a man by his earlobes.

But then, just as one tries to be fair, along comes a Gary Hart, offering a feast for every connoisseur of comedy and superficiality.

As the free-for-all proceeds, we want to keep the illusion that our traditions are intact. We continue to be polled, though many of us believe that polls are to politics what battleships are to warfare -- weapons whose usefulness is perhaps overrated by experts. Polls may tell us that 2 percent prefer Bruce Babbitt, but they do not reflect the likelihood that many of us would not even choose most of the announced candidates for class president. (Richard Gephardt, for example, reminds one of the kid in school who ratted on smokers.)

What is not measured is a longing for someone who embodies the very best of ourselves -- as TR or FDR or Eisenhower did, and in so doing enlarged the nation's sense of its ideals and purpose. What goes unrecorded is a simpler wish for leaders, as Madison put it, who earn the preference of their fellow-citizens by being "somewhat distinguished also by those qualities that entitle them to it." And for all the reforms proposed, little serious attention is paid to finding a sensible method -- a "process" -- to bring such folk into contention.

There is a lot to savor in the quirkiness of America's celebrated rough and tumble, but many of us suspect, amidst trails of laughter, that quirkiness is starting to come in first; that qualities of scrupulousness and direction are being jostled out of our national life while an impotent political establishment shrugs. The campaign is young, and it is perhaps too early, and too easy, to sneer. But for some of us on the sidelines, that anarchic scene we're witnessing seems nothing less than an astonishing preview of worse to come.

Jeffrey A. Frank is an editor at The Washington Post.