It appears that George Washington, the first of the line, had some qualms himself.

"My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution," he wrote in a letter shortly before setting out to become the first president of the United States.

George was better off than he realized. Think what he'd say if he were around to witness the process of becoming president today.

Here we are, fellow citizens, slightly less than two full years away from the next presidential inauguration, and we already have a sizable complement of formally announced candidates for that office. Poised in the wings, about to leap forward, is another group of about the same number, while others eager for the position stamp restlessly before the starting gate. And those now seen contesting in that mythical ring have been about their business of running for president for at least a year.

That is, they have been courting contributors who will provide the necessary millions, recruiting, signing their campaign staffs and trying to keep the top talents away from competitors, contracting with experts in polling and media, plotting strategies and pushing their bodies to the exhaustion point on dawn-to-dusk days of campaign forays around the country.

Let it be said at once that the current crop of candidates, whether announced or potentially so, Democrats or Republicans, are unusually well qualified and serious. The problem lies not with them but with the system. They are all trapped by the process, forced to participate in an extraordinarily expensive and wearying endurance race.

They know, from recent presidential history, that to have any chance of becoming president they must work full-time at running for the office. The example of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan stands before them. Free of all other responsibilities, Carter and Reagan triumphed over rivals who attempted to fulfill elective duties and campaign trail demands.

In that respect, present-day campaigning has moved immeasurably in the opposite direction from that prescribed by one of the great presidents. "A presidential campaign may easily degenerate into a mere personal contest, and so lose its real dignity," proclaimed Woodrow Wilson as he accepted his party's nomination for the first time. Since then, beauty contests have become more of the norm than the exception in presidential races.

Of course, Carter and Reagan are examples of another fact of our present system. The skills needed to win the party nominations are by no means those required for the presidency. They are, in fact, often of necessity at war with each other. So candidates are in danger of entering the White House better versed at running than at governing.

Still, they are compelled first to be runners rather than governors, marathon men rather than statesmen.

No recent political occurrence more sharply underscores this plight facing major political figures with presidential aspirations than the decision by Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) not to seek reelection in 1984. One of the factors, he candidly said, was that he had learned from painful experience that one can't be a successful presidential candidate and Senate leader simultaneously. The nation thus will lose the services of arguably the finest Senate majority leader since Lyndon B. Johnson and a man growing in stature and skill. Whether it will gain his talents as a president remains highly uncertain.

There's no mystery about why we find ourselves in this situation. Integral parts of the process, and problem, are proliferation of presidential primaries, desire of smaller states to profit commercially from the supposed prestige of being known as surface soil that produces the next president, failure of political parties to shorten and tighten the nominating process, the necessity to build costly organizations that can handle national campaigns, the candidates' need to be known nationally, the national press that practices horse-race journalism and the nature of that genre that tends to celebrate personality over substance.

Nor is there any doubt about another fact. People across the country are becoming disgusted with the endless presidential campaigning and talk of front-runners and dark horses that come upon us ever more rapidly from presidential year to year.

The question is what to do about it.

Since we are locked into this situation for 1984 and nothing will change until the go-round after that, if then, the question turns back upon the candidates.

There, the candidates could profit from the thoughts of Peter D. Hart, the Democratic pollster and political analyst. To Hart, the real question is not so much the length of the process. It is how candidates use the long time in which they are running for president.

Are they spending energies in frantic 18-hour days courting narrow, small groups of potential political backers? Are they consumed by the daily demands of the hunt for delegate votes and constituent blocs? Or are they seeking to understand what's on the minds of those they hope to lead and represent? Are they listening to the widest range of American opinion, including those critical of their political positions? Are they searching for solutions to the problems that form the greatest concerns of the general public?

In the end, all that counts is how well they address those larger public questions after being charged with the responsibility of governing.

Though recent campaign styles have placed a premium upon personality, that doesn't mean the American people will respond favorably only to the pretty face or charming pleaser. "Nobody has ever expected me to be president," Abraham Lincoln said two years before he was elected. "In my poor, lean, lank face nobody has ever seen that any cabbages were sprouting."

But they did see something else there. They saw what Peter Hart is talking about, someone engaged in a serious search for solutions. They saw a thinker instead of a runner.