I know I'm coming late to the feeding frenzy, but concerning the matter of Dan Quayle, there may still be something left to chew over -- some food for thought that goes beyond Quayle's character and credentials or George Bush's judgment or the torments of the baby boomers in the turbulent 1960s or the wickedness of "wolfpack" journalism.

True enough, Dan Quayle has much in his gilded youth and his lightweight public life to live down and much to learn -- far too much, if fate should call upon him any time soon to fulfill the only important purpose of the vice presidency. Given the alternatives, his choice -- for the shallowest of demographic or photographic reasons -- does no credit to the presidentiality of George Bush. That much seems so obvious that it hardly needed saying. End of argument, one might have thought.

But not at all. What struck me most forcefully in the news stories and TV talk show transcripts I reviewed was how quickly the argument careened away from the merits of the candidate and into pop sociology. A second-rate senator became an instant metaphor for a whole generation of young Americans. Statistics were trotted out to show what a wide assortment of Quayle's age group had done or not done to avoid combat in Vietnam, as if this had something to do with Quayle's qualifications for high office.

The press, naturally, was in the dock, as well -- "a school of piranha after a side of beef," cried Pat Buchanan, and a hypocritical, politically motivated school, whose interest was only in savaging Republicans. Thanks to Quayle's candidacy, The Wall Street Journal exclaimed, "The 1988 election finally has a galvanizing issue -- Vietnam . . . let George Bush and Michael Dukakis debate the rightness and wrongness of the war in Vietnam and in November let the voters decide who was right and who was wrong."

That's nonsense. On the performance of the "media," Michael J. Robinson, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, had it right in an article in the Baltimore Sun. He noted the Democratic vice presidential candidates Thomas Eagleton (in 1972) and Geraldine Ferraro (in 1984) did not exactly get a free ride at the hands of a supposedly partisan press. "When trying to decide who's caused a feeding frenzy among the animals at the zoo," he wrote, "I look first to the zookeeper, and in New Orleans the zookeeper was George Bush." What Bush was serving up in the candidacy of a "41-year-old senator without a war record but with a lackluster re'sume' and a set of unresolved questions about his background," he pointed out, was "fresh, red, raw meat."

As for the idea that what this country needs is a nasty rehash of the Vietnam War, in honor of Dan Quayle, no serious response is called for. But, ironically, Quayle, in his own mixed-up way, offers one by his own example. He still doesn't know what to make of Vietnam -- any better than he knew at the time. But he has at least a weak grip on a lesson from Vietnam that actually might be worth debating this fall -- a lesson derived from his own experience as he tells it.

He "supported goals of fighting communism in Vietnam," he says, but "like many, many other Americans {he} had particular problems about the way the war was conducted." It was the "no-win policy aspect" that troubled him. So he reconciled prudence with patriotism by wangling his way into the National Guard.

Now some may call that craven. But it was not all that much more craven than the conduct of the war itself. It was an invitation to ambivalence: the generous deferment from the draft, the absence of any declaration of war, the business-as-usual on the home front (the great society was not to be put at risk), the duplicity of the policy pronouncements, the inequities of the burden-sharing, the failure of politicians to present a realistic objective, let alone an honest estimate of the price.

"When you get into conflict, and regional conflicts, I mean, you have to have certain goals, and a goal cannot be really a no-win situation," Quayle said in the course of an otherwise bumbling effort to explain away his war service, and while the proposition has been better put by, say, Henry Kissinger, Quayle is right. When in the next breath he said, "I think we learned a lot from Vietnam," he was asking for an argument -- unless he really thinks the Reagan administration he so slavishly supported was following his golden rule in Lebanon in the early 1980s, for one example or in Nicaragua for the past seven years.

But never mind. If the Dan Quayle story is to be a metaphor for something, let it be a metaphor for ambivalence in the conduct American foreign policy, and not just in Vietnam. Let Bush and Dukakis address precisely the question raised by Dan Quayle -- the question of how they feel, for instance, about the War Powers Act or, more broadly, how they would go about defining the goals and equitably distributing the burdens of safeguarding national security in a decreasingly bipolar and increasingly complicated world.