I've always distrusted Al Smith's famous aphorism about the only cure for the ills of democracy being more democracy. It's one of those truisms that sounds wonderful until examined. What the hell did he mean anyway? And how much democracy is perfection and in what sense?

But now, thanks to the League of Women Voters, I've had a partial answer to some of my questions.

You've heard, of course, that the problem with this election campaign -- and many, many recent ones -- is a lack of true discussion of the issues. What we need is a good debate to cleanse the body politic and hone the public perception of the great political significance of things. I confess I've even sounded similar notes myself from time to time from this perch. Perhaps I will again but never in the same way.

I've been, you see, to the first presidential candidates' debate of the '80s. A more enervating, stultifying event can hardly be imagined. For once we can't entirely blame the politicians for their performances. For this fiasco we have only the League of Women Voters to thank. I know that wasn't their purpose, but that's the way it turned out.

The setting was Central High School here. On stage were all seven of the Republican candidates. To question them were two journalists, plus a newsman moderator. That was the first problem: The journalists weren't there really to question them, or challenge them, or seek out differences between them. As nearly as I could see, they were there as foils.

They were allowed to address one question to one candidate. Then each of the seven responded, as each wished, to that single question. You can imagine how laboriously that worked.

Once that long round was completed, the next journalist would ask a question. Around went the ball again from candidate to candidate. Then the moderator asked this question. And so on.

No opportunity to interrupt or correct or raise a different point was permitted. Not once was a followup question allowed. After this process had wound its weary way, previously selected members of the audience were given time to ask individual questions -- again with no followups.

The last part of the 1 1/2-hour session was devoted to summations by the candidates, one by one. Naturally, they gave speeches. Worst of all was the trap in which the candidates found themselves. They were not permitted to mix it up, to break in with a "with-a-minute" inquiry, to engage in even the most limited face-to-face exchange with a competitor. The result was predictable tedium. Scarcely anything new emerged, and precious few insights were gleaned about these men who seek to be president.

Obviously, putting seven political candidates on at once presents problems. But the League of Women Voters compounded them. They established so rigid a format that boredom was guaranteed. Any spark of life was quenched. As presented, this presidential forum, as the league calls its events, failed even as an educational device. Given the setup, how could it succeed?

About all that saved the GOP session was Bob Dole of Kansas, whose sardonic humor cut through that leaden night like a refreshing jolt of energy. There were moments when you could see several candidates itching to reply to somebody's statement or to raise another point. But these, too, passed in silence.

If the league didn't plan more such forums, this hard criticism would be pointless. But they do. Surely let's hope this format isn't set in concrete.

I've never felt the presence of reporters necessary to intelligent, spirited discussions of political issues. Get a good moderator to maintain order, give direction when needed, keep track of time, pose essential topical questions, and let the candidates have at each other. That way we'd see what these candidates have in them -- brilliant, stupid insipid, inspiring, whatever -- and how they wish to frame the questions and express vital differences, if any.

But if the league really thinks we journalists are essential to their forums, let us do our jobs and pursue some of the questions and answers.That's not a debate, to be sure but at least it's a cure for one of the ills that now afflicts us.