I had just come back from a movie, when Mary Stanley called from California. She had been startled to read in my column on Republican women that she was working for Reagan. The woman had jumped ship long ago, and was planning an Anderson reception booth that very day.

I take this sort of mistake very calmly. First, I impale my source on the point of a poisoned pen and then I recycle the weapon for hara-kiri. It is the only decent thing to do.

Stanley, however, persuaded me merely to strike Ms. Unimpeachable off my dance card and carry on. After all, she had dome something similar with Reagan himself.

In 1964, Mary Stanley, president of a frozen food corporation, had heard Ronald Reagan make "The Speech" on behalf of Barry Goldwater. She'd become an instant fan.

Stanley is the sort of Republican who believes that individual rights are a conservative issue. She belongs to the party of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Moreover, she remembers when Reagan was on her team. This is more than Reagan cares to remember.

In his time as governor, Reagan signed 66 bills supported and/or initiated by the California State Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1967, his name was penned at the bottom of one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country.

In 1972, he came out in favor of the ERA in a strong statement saying, in part, "In my opinion the simple declaration that 'Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex' is morally unassailable."

The man developed his qualms -- and his backpedals -- on these issues when he decided to run for national office.

So much for Mary Stanley as a Reagan supporter. "I didn't leave him. He left me." So much for Reagan's boast that he has been as consistent as the original hobgoblin.

My conversation with Stanley reminded me of the movie I'd just seen. Throughout this bizarre campaign, I keep hearing people say about Reagan, "at least he's" 1) consistent, 2) straightforward, 3) understandable. Choose one from Column A.

While the other candidates have stumbled over some complexity or other and gotten bogged down in a conflicting value or two, he hasn't. His positions are as clear as his Panama Canal slogan: "We bought it, we paid for it, it's ours." His speech is the "Veni, vidi, vici" of the campaign trail.

This is either admirable or spooky. Having just popcorned my way through "Being There," I choose spooky.

In the world created by Jerzy Kosinski, Peter Sellers plays a totally simple gardener catapulted into fame and presidential timber through no fault of his own. The man just goes around Washington talking about what he knows: roots and soil, seasons and climates. w

But his plain sentences are interpreted as metaphors for deep thoughts about the economy and the state of the world. The man is analyzed into profundity.

At one point in the flick, for example, he says that spring always follows winter, and he is praised for cleverly talking to the American people at a third-grade level. At another moment, he is told, "You don't play games with words; you're direct." He has, of course, no choice.

The movie is a political parable, but not a compleat Reagan parallel. Chauncey Gardiner, as he is called in the movie, is an illiterate who was raised on television. Reagan is a literate who was raised in television.

Yet it struck me that perhaps the reason Reagan's simplicity seems so real is because it is real. His former campaign manager, John Sears, said he's weak on the issues. Beneath that simple facade is a superficial core.

This can be a political advantage. If you don't see the complex, you don't have to struggle to simplify. You don't have to muck up your brain and your speech and your followers with complications. To use one of my father's favorite expressions, you are unencumbered by knowledge.

In a year of confusion and doubt, like this one, everybody else is offering tough choices. Chauncey Gardiner isn't the only one who's succeeding by just Being There.