THE POLITICAL decathlon that begins on Jan. 21 in the Iowa caucuses has already come in for its fair share of criticism (including ours). Thirty-six primaries in only 14 weeks, even for an electorate as addicted to contests as ours, does seem too much. The sheer volume of the party rules and regulations, along with certain chilling features of the public financing law, have stolen more than a little of the spontaneity from presidential politics. But let us not confuse an awareness of the serious flaws in the current system with misplaced nostalgia for the old.

Those were the days all right -- The Bad Old Days. They went on politically until only three presidential elections ago. In 1968, the incumbent, President Lyndon Johnson, was challenged for renomination by Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy. What these insurgent candidacies encountered, in the unfairness of the delegate-selection process, could not be defended by the most zealous apostle of tradition. For example, 100 percent of the delegates from Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island and Wyoming had been effectively chosen through a process that had been determined long before 1968. That is, long before the issues or the candidates of that election year had even emerged. The same year, any challenging group of delegates in Connecticut was required first to ante up over $14,000 in non-refundable filing fees before being granted a place on the primary ballot. The official party slate, by contrast, got a freebie and special position on the ballot.

Hawaii, our newest state, had imported one of the mainland's minor swindles. Proxy votes were cast at the Hawaii state Democratic convention from a precinct not only without voters for the proxies, but from a precinct, because of urban renewal, containing more vacant lots than buildings. Phantom voters from real addresses are somehow marginally more acceptable than phantom voters from phantom addresses.

For the sake of historical accuracy, let it be noted that these rules did not originate with President Johnson and his supporters. The same rules had generally applied when the Democratic Party had been nominating both Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. The domestic and political turmoil generated by the war in Vietnam had led predictably to a challenge to the Johnson policies and power. Quite simply, this is how the ancient, if dishonorable, practices, like those in Missouri, became a matter of political-public knowledge.

Missouri. Forget Boss Tweed and Mark Hanna and their tricks or treachery. The "show me" state, at least its 1968 Democratic Party officers, made those two legendary operators look like St. Francis of Assisi. Consider the five Democratic township chairmen in St. Louis County who absolutely refused to disclose either to enrolled party members or to the press the date, time or place of the "public" meetings to select convention delegates. And do not forget their colleague who chartered a bus, filled it with loyal lieutenants and cold drinks, and held his precinct's caucus while traveling at 60 miles an hour on the interstate. Nor were such party deceptions the exclusive practice of the "boys in the back room." The other gender made its contribution to the eventual demand for rules changes in the person of a precinct committeewoman who, upon realizing that her troops at the caucus were outnumbered 140 to 111 by the "irregulars," discovered in her possession 492 proxies. She immediately voted all 492 as a unit and refused from that day forward to reveal either the proxies or the names on them.

That's the way it was in the political Twilight Zone of 1968. Only the blindest-of nostalgia buffs could weep for the elimination of such methods from our politics. And now 12 years later, the system, which had been rightly branded unresponsive and rigid, has been throughly overhauled. The problem, which we will come back to, is finding those elements of the present "reformed" system that are true reforms and worth saving -- as distinct from some that have just preserved old trouble or created new.