If we are going to spend the next five months detesting the candidates for president, we should at least try to make the best of the emotion. If needs guidelines, it needs structure, it needs purpose -- in short, it needs redeeming social value. How can that be achieved? How can a reportedly suicidal electroate coaxed down off the ledge?

Actually, for all its vaunted intensity and apparently widespread nature, the public's present contempt for the candidates is not likely to last out the summer. More probably, it will give way to little bursts of revelation and reversal ("Say, you know Reagan is beginning to make sense to me," "Well, when you look at what Carter had to cope with . . ."). But since all of that will only precede yet another national spasm of contempt, it seems to me we might as well get started on a program of sorting out legitimate gripes from frivolous or wrongheaded ones, of figuring out what has happened and why.

What has happened, in the view of great printoutful of voters who have been surveyed in this political year, is that the "system" has produced two thoroughly unacceptable candidates -- Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter -- as the main choices letting them win out over a number of others who were also, when you got right down to it, unacceptable. This at once adds up to an indictment of the "system" if we let it -- but I don't think we should. I absolutely agree with those who point out that the "reformed" system, with its marathon primaries and its nit-picking financing rules, is crazy. But I always thought the old system was pretty crazy too; we have a crazy system, reformed or unregenerate.

What seems to be relevant about it is that the same spirit, the same concept that led to the "reforms" and the new complications of election law has also led naturally to the particular candidates now ascendant. Their faults -- and I think these are in some areas absolutely gigantic -- are what the new political consciousness conceives of as virtues. They are loners, outsiders, men who came to political power at the edges of the life of their national parties and who had to overwhelm recalcitrant and fearful party mainstream regulars to succeed. They are, in admittedly different ways, both men who have risen to the pinnacle of politics on the strength of people's perception (encouraged by them) that they are different from, and better than regular politicians.

This is no call to bring back the crummums -- they probably haven't gone very far, anyway. But it is a plea for recognition of the fact that, broadly speaking, what has brought Jimmy Carter to his present low estate -- what we are denouncing him for -- is an accumulation of flubs and failures that are almost all directly attributable to his apolitical nature and instincts. (Yes, I hear all that jeering and yelling at the back of the room; we will get around in a minute to the sense in which you find him too political, positively dripping in political syrup.)

We have developed something new in our politics: the professional amateur. It is by now a trend, a habit, a cult. You succeed in this line of activity by declaring your aversion to and unfitness for it. That will bring you the cheers of the multitude. It will also bring in time -- I am certain of it -- the kind of troubles the Carter presidency has sustained and seemed, almost perversely, to compound.

One giant flaw in the commonplace analysis of Carter's failures is that people blame the president for much that is outside his direct control -- crimes committed by Congress, other countries, etc. And, shamelessly, the foreign and native perpetrators of some of those crimes love to join in the fun of sighing about the deficiencies of Jimmy Carter. But even noting that, it remains true that a president is meant to be a worldclass politician precisely because political talent is what it takes to avert the worst that, say, Congress or the Elysee Palace or the ayatollahs can do to you.

The inconstancy that people deplore in Carter's statements and policies, the foul-ups and the general sense that things are out of control, the disinclination (or inability) to project a strong, consistent presence and interest overseas -- all this I trace back to the reflection of the president's apolitical approach to power throughout his government. He has no appetite for and certainly takes no joy in that combination of management, manipulation, inspiration, deceit, psychiatry and armwrestling that it takes to get things to happen when you are president, and so, often as not, they don't. He is not transfixed by power. He does not seem intrigued by the challenge of using it forcefully and to good ends without abusing it. He doesn't even seem to like it very much.

Reagan hasn't been president -- and so we don't know that whole story. But to me there has surely been enough of the same strain of redemption-by-a-political-innocent-and-Washington-novice to his campaign to set off the warnings. The irony of it is, to me, that the Third Man, the way out of the dilemma, John Anderson, is being hailed and promoted as exactly this same kind of apolitical, above-it-all savior-candidate. The issue, his literature suggests, is whether he is just too good, too decent to be a politician. He is the new Mr. Outsider.

So long as we espouse this weird and implausibe set of values, several things will happen. One is that the dreadful and demeaning little system of hypocrisies we actually think of as "politics" will prevail -- all that phony-selfless stuff that no one believes. They say Jimmy Carter lies. How could he not? He and the others are talking a basic and common American political lingo in which very little that is said is true. Does anyone believe either his statements about why he won't debate Kennedy or Anderson, for instance, or theirs about why they so high-mindedly want to debate? Did anyone believe Reagan's argument about why he didn't debate in Iowa? At this low-grade-fever level of politics, yes, Jimmy Carter and the whole lot of them are eminently "political."

But so what? It is play. The real question has to do with why we are assiduously rejecting the claims of true politics -- true political skill -- in this country today and then rejecting the men we have chosen to lead us on what, for them and for us is clearly a mission impossible.