DES MOINES -- It is at least time -- if not long overdue -- for the people to have their say, and this is as good a place as one could find for them to start picking a president.

Were it left to me, this is not how we would do it. I would happily go back to the kind of nominating system we had in 1960, the first campaign I covered. We had a few primaries -- really only a half-dozen of any consequence -- spaced far enough apart so the voters could learn a good deal about the candidates. The parties used those primaries to test the campaigning skills of the presidential aspirants.

But the choice was made in convention hall, by the leading politicians in each state, and they took responsibility for the electoral and governmental consequences. In 1960 and for many decades before, that relatively closed system produced qualified candidates and a series of generally capable and occasionally brilliant presidents. But the system has changed since 1968, in keeping with the culture and values of this society.

We live in a time when most Americans are reluctant to delegate control over decisions important to their lives. Most of us do not want to let ''the politicians'' pick the candidates; voters want the right to participate in that choice, as primaries and open caucuses allow anyone to do.

If we are going to have a season for primaries and caucuses, Iowa is the kind of place you would choose for the opening game. No state is ''typical,'' but the people of Iowa have several important characteristics valuable to the task at hand. They are smart, they are well-informed, they take their role seriously, and they bring generous values and broad perspectives to the task.

I wrote last summer about the people at the Linn County Democratic picnic who sat on their folding chairs through a steady rainfall, extending the same courtesy of attention to Jesse Jackson as they had to the previous six speakers. As I have circled the state this past month, with George Bush and Michael Dukakis, among others, I have been struck again by the intentness and intensity with which these Iowans listen -- and ask questions.

Bush had a question-and-answer session with the students at Valley High School in West Des Moines a couple of weeks ago. It's in an affluent Republican area, and Bush had invited the school principal to his breakfast in Washington with Mikhail Gorbachev.

So it looked like a setup. In fact, the grilling he got from those students was tougher than the interview with Dan Rather. They were far better prepared for Bush than he was for them.

You need to remember that when the losers in Iowa tell you that there's a ''tilt'' to this process that discounts its value. Sure, only 200,000 or so of the state's 2.9 million people go to the caucuses, and they are not representative even of their neighbors. But they are not, as some would depict them, pawns of this or that special-interest group. They tend to be the better educated, more involved citizens of their communities. They think for themselves and they think hard about their choices.

Each night for the last several nights before the caucuses, I made a dozen or so phone calls to people who had told one campaign or another they were undecided on their choice. These people were the opposite of the stereotype of the ''undecided voter'' in a general election, often someone who is so apathetic he has not bothered to focus on or figure out the differences among the candidates.

These people knew an astounding amount about Paul Simon's and Richard Gephardt's voting records, and about Jack Kemp's and Bob Dole's differences on budgetary policy. They were hesitating because they wanted to be sure they were making the right choice. Or because their tentative judgment conflicted with the inclination of someone they respected -- a spouse or a friend -- and they wanted to consider again the possibility that their own reading of the candidates might be wrong. They were acutely conscious of the power they hold as the first to choose, and they wanted to be sure they were exercising it wisely.

Nor is it true that they are parochial, consumed by their geographical or occupational interests. These Republicans in 1980 picked George Bush of Texas, Connecticut and Maine over Bob Dole of Kansas, John Anderson and Ronald Reagan of Illinois. These Democrats in 1976 examined as large a field of contenders as they face this year and settled on Jimmy Carter of Georgia.

These are voters who care about the country and the world as much as they care about their jobs or their farms. Their conversations reflect that, and their newspapers and radio stations give them a healthy diet of information about the world. These are people who opened their arms to the refugees of Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, as did citizens of few other states.

I have no idea what they are going to do on Feb. 8. But given the system we have, I can't think of anyone I would rather see making that first choice.