I always respected Mary McGrory as an appropriately skeptical journalist. Until, that is, I saw how easily gulled she was in Iowa {"I

Iowa," Outlook, Jan. 24}. On just one trip to Des Moines, McGrory runs into a cabbie with an aw-shucks farmboy act and concludes that, yup, them folks in the heartland sure are nice.

The truth is that Iowans (of whom I was one and despite the fact that I no longer live there shall be one forevermore) have been into this niceness sham since 1976, when we snuck Jimmy Carter into the forefront of politics before the media had ever figured it out.

My family did its part. We were hosting one of the precinct caucuses, so my dad got calls from all of the candidates. ("Just wanted to make sure I could count on your support, Earl.") The most startling call, though, came from James Dickenson (then with The Washington Star, now with The Post). He had interviewed my brother-in-law, a Birch Bayh supporter, a few times, and we thought he might show up. But when he called to say he was bringing along the Roger Mudd, we stashed away all the copies of Harper's and The New Yorker and pulled out Midwest Farmer. Mom made green Jell-O with little marshmallows. "Act folksy," Dad said in a precaucus pep talk.

Mudd didn't bring any cameras, but we still gave him a healthy portion of down-home democracy by passing resolutions on nuclear war, world hunger and whether double-bottomed trucks should be allowed in the state. We sprinkled in words like "yup" and "gee whiz" and had our hands in our pockets a lot. But most of all, we were nice. He must have been impressed because he stayed for the whole show.

Twelve years ago, it was fun getting all the attention and chuckling at how a tiny state like ours could launch a peanut farmer into the White House. But enough is enough. The fact is that Iowans are perfectly capable of being rude and nasty. If you doubt that, try driving through the state with out-of-state tags in a nonelection year. I'm tired of all the Des Moines datelines in newspapers. I'm sick of having everyone I meet judge me, on finding out my roots, by the dirt-road image perpetuated by the press.

My parents aren't so much offended as annoyed. Now when I ask them how the campaign is going, they respond with ennui. "Had breakfast with Paul Simon today. Tonight, we're going out to the high school to hear what Gephardt has to say. I think some movie stars and candidates are going to be at Roy's house tomorrow, but we wanted to do some shopping. Dad's got an interview with some magazine in the morning."

What was once fun has become tedious. I say, let Nebraska or some such place be first in the nation so that its residents can spend every fourth winter masquerading as sweet-tempered, easy-going hicks. Then Iowans can go back to acting natural -- and occasionally nasty -- even around caucus time.

-- Phillip Godwin