It is February and George Bush has taken the prize. He is in at least temporary possession (there is bound to be a struggle for it) of the politically golden adjective "moderate." This matters more to Republicans than Democrats for whom the comparable term is "pragmatic," but we will touch on that later. Ronald Reagan, the heavy thinking goes, could dally with the appearance of "moderation" so long as he was ahead, but now has been forced to drop it and mobilize his more zealous, immoderate fans. Mesrs. Baker, Crane, Connally, Dole and Anderson may be moderately this or that, yet none of them has run off with the epithet. Bush has. What does the term mean, anyway? How can you tell if somebody is one? And finally, what's so good about it? My own immoderate view is that very nearly everything about the conception in our politics is irrational.

It is also distinctively American, and I say that fully aware that this elevation of a relative term "moderate" (moderately" what? ) to the status of an absolute virtue has had its earlier history. The Greek philosophers, the Scottish church and the most boring and depressing insights of Benjamin Franklin come to mind. But we in this country do treat the term these days with an empty-headedness that is truly special. The other day I noticed in the papers that those Iranians who were no longer demanding the return of the shah, but rather his trial in absentia with our cooperation as a condition for perhaps releasing the hostages, were described as favoring a "moderate approach."

"Moderate," then, is something that is good principally because it is less terrible than it could be, a weakened and thus improved form of something basically awful. It is for this reason that I have often pondered why Republicans not only acquiesce in this usage, but actually fight over it. When I say the Democratic parallel is the use of the blessing "pragmatic" before the word "liberal," I have in mind the same kind of inadvertent assumption -- that without the qualification of hardheadedness or practicality you are talking about a position that is basically irrelevant or silly. But to the Republicans the damage that flows from the practice seems to me much graver, even mortal. All this vying for the qualifier "moderate" without defining the set of beliefs it qualifies suggests that whatever Republicanism may be, more than a few drops of it will kill you.

The obvious programmatic trap here is that the "moderate" generally has to let his positions on public questions be defined by the "extremes," as they are known. But the searing, definitive truth abaout all this -- the No. 1 secret -- is that program plays only a minor, marginal part in the designation. You have to look the part. A "moderate" may or may not have a slightly more soft-edged version of some of Gov. Reagan's driving dreams, but it is not optional to sound, move and speak in ways that the culture associates with the political "moderate." You could say everything George Bush has ever said in his life, but look like Edward Teller, and nobody would dream of accusing you of "moderation."

I talked about this with Bush shortly after I met him at the Republican convention in San Francisco nearly 16 years ago. He was a Goldwater delegate running for senator from Texas, I was a reporter and the two of us found ourselves crammed into a cab heading into town from the Cow Palace with a bunch of other Goldwater delegates who claimed to be from Oklahoma but who really looked to be from Central Casting. One, whose freely proffered business card revealed him to be "Irl (Big Boy) Rhynes," overwhelmed the space and the company with bellowed tales of having slain 52 head of cattle for some kind of fund-raising feast in behalf of Barry Goldwater, while Bush moved back and forth between ho-ho-ho's with Big Boy and shared looks of horrified entertainment with me.

When we talked about it later, he kidded about our raucous ride into town. But he argued -- as many others at that wild convention did -- that not all of Goldwater's supporters were either characters like Big Boy or "extremists," like the Birchers. They adduced the normal-looking clean-cut fellows like themselves as evidence, observing, as my notes show Bush did, that "we don't wear sheets with slits for the eyes." Like so many other Eastern snobs who presumed that people who looked a certain way couldn't be political loonies, I pretty much adopted this test. It lasted about 36 hours, until the day on the convention floor that a Utah delegate for Goldwater told a reporter in my hearing why he was certain that Richard Nixon was a member of the Communist Party, and I observed that everything about this ordinary, "moderate"-looking delegate was sane, well-groomed and soft-spoken, except that he was nuts.

I need to confess at this point that in my dotage I have not only put behind me the notion that Ivy-League-is-moderate-is-good, but also the notion that what we kick in the head so regularly as "extremism" is bad; and precisely the aspects of Bush's candidacy that do attract me are those in which he takes clear, unmushy and -- to many -- extreme-seeming or unpopular stands. In the context of that San Francisco convention -- there were terrible racist undercurrents and strains of vengefulness -- the Goldwater call to arms about extremism in the defense of liberty being no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice no virtue was reckless. But right now, I think the old saw has something to it.

Looking around at the spectacular failure of old assumptions -- economic, political, diplomatic and military -- that have transformed the international and domestic landscape, and listening to the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do range of familiary solutions proposed by our candidates, I keep waiting for the true and needed radical vision to be offered. Not, mind you, the traditional Reagan or Kennedy far ends of the classic conservative-liberal scale, but the disruptive perceptions of someone who is willing to talk painful truth and do the unconventional, needed thing. Our problems are not moderately serious and our mistakes have not been moderately grave, and we are not going to get out of this mess by trying to find the exact halfway point between smart and dumb and perching there.