Successful contemporary candidates know that in television news the picture makes the story. That's why they search constantly for the perfect "visual" to best dramatize their message. In making public the candidate's clean-water proposals, for instance, a once-popular swimming hole, now closed by industrial pollution, makes a much better visual than would a sterile hotel meeting room.

The 1980 Reagan presidential campaign was very contemporary and quite successful. And it understood the importance of television news. That's why on Oct. 9 of that election year, candidate Ronald Reagan, to dramatize both his concern and his program for unemployed Americans, went to Youngstown, Ohio. There, in full view of an abandoned steel mill and in the company of out-of-work steel workers, the candidate communicated, directly through network news, compassion and commitment to the nation. It was a spectacularly effective visual. In Youngstown that month, the unemployment rate was 13.2 percent and in Ohio there were 433,000 citizens out of work. The most recent figures indicate an unemployment rate of 16.4 percent in Youngstown and a total of 598,000 Ohioans out of work.

That same autumn, Ronald Reagan repeatedly scolded President Carter for following the "old- fashioned course that you can't control inflation unless you have a recession and have unemployment." In Kokomo, Ind., where in October 1980 unemployment was 13.1 percent, Reagan promised economic growth and pledged jobs for all who wanted them. He spoke virtually in the shadow of the Chrysler and GM factories, where layoffs were a weekly occurrence. It was a dramatic visual. Indiana's unemployed, who numbered 231,383 in October of 1980, now total 353,700. Last week, the president visited Indiana again. He did not go to Kokomo, where the unemployment rate stands at 18.6 percent, but to the flooded city of Fort Wayne to offer help and encouragement. You may have seen, on television, the visual of the president passing the sandbags.

But, as the president knows better than most, nobody is 18.6 percent unemployed. When you're unemployed, you're 100 percent unemployed, weekdays and weekends.

In a society where we too often define ourselves, and others, by what we do, to admit to be doing nothing can be very destructive of one's self-respect. A distinguished American wrote of a personal experience, one Dec. 24: "I can still see the tiny apartment living room and Jack reading the single blue page the envelope contained. Without raising his head, he quietly remarked, "Well, it's a hell of a Christmas present.'" That was how, according to his son's autobiography, 48-year-old Jack Reagan learned, in 1931, that he had been fired.

Now Jack Reagan's son is no longer a candidate visiting Youngstown. He is president, and now asking if it is news that "some fellow in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off that he should be interviewed nationwide..."

It was a good visual, and news, in the fall of 1980, Mr. President.