What kind of crazy political system is it where a man who wants to run for president must begin by withdrawing from public life? Gary Hart followed the tradition, dating perhaps back to Richard Nixon in 1962, when he effectively began his 1988 campaign by announcing that he won't run for reelection to the Senate this year.

Running for president is now a job in itself. Nixon and Ronald Reagan spent six years each at it, more or less full-time. Jimmy Carter spent two. Walter Mondale spent four. With only 34 months to go, Hart is none too early by these standards.

But there's more to it. The way the press covers politics these days puts an enormous premium on not making mistakes, or "gaffes." The implicit scoring system is almost entirely negative. The campaign is like an obstacle course where you lose points for doing something wrong. You rarely get awarded points for doing something right. Under these rules, it's best to do as little as possible. If you're not being tested, you can't be found wanting. That is why Hart is eager not to be perceived as the front-runner.

Actually holding office is even worse than being the front-runner. Total self-reinvention is essential to any serious modern presidential campaign. Cadres of consultants, pollsters, and media advisers stand ready to help. Nothing distracts from this painstaking process like having to take a position on an issue not of your own choosing.

The issues a practicing senator faces are infuriatingly concrete. Often a legislator is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. He can offend yuppies or he can offend Catholics, appear to be soft on defense or appear to be a spendthrift, lose the farmers or lose the unions. Voting issues resist the delicate molding that allows the producer of position papers to strike that perfect balance.

Being out of office makes it easier to strike useful postures. It may be too late for Gary Hart to be born in a log cabin, but it is not too late for him to buy one. I do worry about the sense of humor of a man who, with a straight face, can run for president as the kind of guy who lives on "Troublesome Gulch Road." But I can see that it wouldn't be easy to find an equivalent Marlboro Man setting for press interviews within commuting distance of Washington. Not that you'd want to, since the point is that you're not a creature of Washington. As political real estate, Hart's rustic retreat puts poor Mondale's hastily purchased home in suburban Minneapolis to shame.

Mondale made a big deal about using his time out of office to read up and think about America's problems. It seems that Hart is sparing us that one. On the other hand, he's breaking new ground in the "I'm not really a politician" school of politicl campaigning. Escorting a Wall Street Journal reporter around Troublesome Gulch in the snow, "he talks about living here among the gray fox and the pines, writing novels." He says, "I've always looked at politics as an interim period in my life." Hart even talks about moving to Ireland, says a friend. Surely this carries the anti-Washington theme too far. Americans have a peculiar fondness for diffidence in their politicians, but will they really elect someone as president who would just as soon leave the country? Then there's the financial problem. Because of the terrible cost of running for president, Hart still owes $3.4 million from his 1984 campaign. Not running for the Senate gives him time to pay this off, and also saves him from having to raise millions for that race too. We've almost reached the point where running for president is a once-in-a-lifetime gamble. Anyone who loses will be too saddled with debt to think about running again.

A colleague asks resentfully why Hart should be buying colorful real estate when he owes other people so much money. The answer is one of the many anomalies in our campaign finance laws. Not only is Hart not personally liable for these debts -- he is forbidden to pay them off himself. Having accepted federal matching funds, he can't put much of his own money into his campaign, even when it's over. What's more, he can't take contributions of more than $1,000, and can't take any money at all from people who already gave the maximum when the campaign was still going on. Thus his most loyal supporters are out of bounds. So are PACs, by Hart's own principled stand.

For all these reasons, Hart is better off in Troublesome Gulch than on Capitol Hill. Campaigning and governing have almost become mutually exclusive activities. Apart from actual incumbency, only one office is arguably a better jumping-off-place for a race for president than no office at all. That's vice president: an exception that proves the rule.