Here's how it happened: Four men ran up to a car at a traffic light and -- gangland style -- emptied automatic and semiautomatic weapons into it. The driver of the car, aged 23, was killed -- shot 10 times -- while panicked pedestrians dived for cover. Beirut 1988? Chicago 1933? No sirree. Washington, D.C. -- about one week ago.

In the poor areas of the city, young men are killing each other at a record pace -- usually over drugs. The city has recorded 46 homicides, 35 drug related, some preceded by torture and many carried out with theurban equivalent of heavy weaponry. In response, the police have been issued 9 mm semiautomatic weapons and shotguns. This is war.

Two summers ago, Len Bias, an extraordinarily gifted basketball player, died after using cocaine. His death stunned the nation, and for all that summer and part of the fall, both cocaine and its potent derivative, crack, were a national obsession. The networks indulged themselves in harrowing and gripping re-ports about the menace of crack. News magazines outdid themselves in sounding the alarm -- sometimes using the word "epidemic" -- and politicians responded, as they of-ten do, by proposing legislation, some ofit silly, some of it dangerous, all of it ineffective.

At the time, some drug experts predicted that coke, once the fashionable drug of the young and affluent, would, like water, seek its own level -- in this case, the poor. Then, like heroin before it, the problem would sink from sight. It would become just another destructive element in the ghetto, and white America, just recently obsessed with drugs, would pay it no heed when suburbia seemed safe.

In our more reflective moments, journalists sometimes find the vast and carnival-like presidential campaign detached from reality -- often unrelated to the very issues and problems the next president will have to handle. In Iowa, for instance, few of the candidates said anything meaningful about events in the West Bank and Gaza. Third World debt was hardly mentioned. No one had anything worthwhile to say about education or nuclear prolif-eration, and AIDS was discussed as if it could be eradicated by shouting the word "values" at it.

Similarly, not once did I hear any of the candidates mention what was happening in Washington and the ghettos of other American cities -- the menace of youth gangs in Los Angeles, for instance, and the death of infants from AIDS in New York. Worse, as kids were killing kids and the Washington cops were confiscating about 400 guns this year alone (many automatic or semiautomatic), the Republican candidates in hunting-crazy New Hampshire proclaimed their courageous opposition to gun control legislation. As for the news media, aside from local newspapers, the Beirutization of Washington has hardly been noticed. After all, white America no longer feels threatened.

To an extent, the political process is to blame for this neglect. Iowa is the first caucus state of any importance, but it's among the last in numbers of black people -- about 1 percent of the population. New Hampshire, too, is really a white enclave. For the moment, the candidates care only about the farm problem or the controversial Seabrook nuclear power plant. The rot of the nation's cities, the plight of the underclass, the appalling condition of schools . . . well, who cares? In Iowa, the concern -- understandably enough -- is the corn surplus.

But regional concerns aside, white America has little tolerance -- and almost no sympathy -- for the problems of black America, particularly its underclass. Possibly it's weary of the story and thinks, wrongly, that it's of no relevance -- a conclusion that would be far different if the victims were white. But white America can neglect the black inner city only at its peril, not to mention expense. If onlyfor humanitarian reasons, this problem will have to be dealt with. After all, the dead, addicted, ruined and terrorized are all human beings.

All the presidential candidates proclaim their leadership abilities. Like kids in the schoolyard, they have quarreled about whois the better leader, the biggest leader -- the one with the most guts, courage and integrity.

But leadership entails actually leading -- getting out ahead of the pack and distinguishing between the important and the trivial. Yet while Washington was rolling up a homicide record, not one of the candidates had theguts to address the problems of the inner city -- to talk to New Hampshire and Iowa voters about what was happening over the horizon of their immediate self-interest. That would be leadership. The inner city has yet to see it.