It seems to me we ask everything about the presidential candidates except the one thing we most need to know: whether they are remotely qualified to hold the office. We concern ourselves greatly with appearance, image, perception, and with the polls that measure the effects of these cliches. We pay too little attention to the men behind the appearances. We compare the candidates with each other, asking whether Smith might be more honest than Jones; we do not ask whether either has as much integrity as a pickpocket. We inquire about Colorado's perceptions of a candidate and about the probable consequences in November. We do not ask: Does the candidate have more than ordinary intelligence? Does he have what could properly be called an education? Is he strong of character? Is he better qualified to be president than a dozen men I could find in a brief search of Washington's newsrooms and laboratories?

We have concerned ourselves greatly with the former ups and present downs of Edward Kennedy's charisma. We have cosseted and examined it so much that one would think the charisma, and not the senator, was the candidate. But no one asks whether Kennedy has more than pedestrian intelligence. Judging by his performance during the Roger Mudd interview, he doesn't think rapidly enough to debate a determined schoolchild. Perhaps I malign him; perhaps a scintillating intellect hides behind the fumbling inarticulateness. Inasmuch as he wants to put himself in charge of the planet's and my destiny, the burden is on him to show that he as intelligence commensurate with the job.

If a president should be decisive, Jimmy Carter ought to be in another line of work. His policies change so rapidly that twice a week he is firmly in agreement with any policy he has ever heard of. In times of growing international tension, a vicillating president is more than a political curiosity. He is dangerous.

Jerry Brown's public utterances give a strong impression that he knows nothing of foreign affairs, isn't interested and wouldn't learn. He apparently has the ideological credentials to run a chain of head shops, or California, but not a nation. I find him quoted as saying that he "has no defense budget." Defense policies can be argued about; refusal to have a defense policy is an absolute disqualification for the presidency.

What reason have we for believing that the candidates have even an undergraduate's education? So far as I know, none of the major candidates has been apprehended in the commission of scholarship. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, they speak English as if it were a recently acquired second language. If any of them knows much, he successfully conceals it. Of course, it is possible that they have concealed a degree of learning, believing that conspicuous erudition is death at the polls. Still, I hate to vote for a candidate in the forlorn hope that he may not be as ignorant as he appears.

I think reporters too often connive at the intellectual vacuousness of candidates by failing to ask the right questions. Usually they seek to elicit positions rather than to determine competence. They ask whether a candidate believes a larger defense budget is necessary, for example, whereupon the candidate responds with the revelation that he thinks the nation needs an adequate defense (thus excluding the possibility that he favors an inadequate defense).

I would like to see newsmen ask: "Mr. Candidate, how many divisions are there in the U.S. Army? In broad outline, what is the Soviet naval strategy? Precisely where is Singapore? The United Emirates? Can you list three distinguishing differences between a hand grenade and a helicopter?" These are legitimate questions. A candidate may be expected to know the fundamentals of important fields of government. Personally, I'd like to see the Graduate Record Examination made a requirement for federal matching funds.

No doubt many will argue that intelligent leaders have sometimes failed, that ignorant leaders have sometimes succeeded, that weak leaders have sometimes muddled through. Many people might say that good intentions and humanitarian concern are the true measures of a president, or that it would be boorish to ask schoolboy questions of a candidate. But some people would like a president who thinks and who has something to think about. My guess is that many of the candidates campaign in utter, blank ignorance of the world beyond our borders, and of much of the world within.