Candidate Cranston on how US picks presidents

By , Godfrey Sperling, the Monitor's Washington bureau chief, has held breakfasts for reporters featuring key national and international figures for the past 17 years.

The process for selecting the next president is well under way, particularly on the Democratic side. And the question again is being raised, as it usually is every four years: Is the process likely to produce the best that the United States has to offer for that position?

Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, a sprinter in real life, but one of the long-distance runners among Democratic aspirants for the presidency, quipped to a reporter's question the other morning: ''How can we be certain we are getting the best in 1984? Elect me.''

But Senator Cranston, once a newspaperman himself, conceded that he was familiar with the thesis that there really is little connection between running for president and actually being president - and that the campaign process sometimes screens out some of those who are most competent, because they don't want to go through the wringer.

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''That's a characteristic in our form of democracy,'' said Cranston. ''But there's no cure for it. Except the parliamentary system. And I don't advocate that we go to that system.''

However, Cranston said he also thinks there is an important relevancy in the present campaigning and electoral process.

''You do see a real test of a candidate's ability to handle complex issues. You do have a pretty good test of a candidate's staying power. You do have a pretty good test of a candidate's temper. And those are characteristics that we need to know about when we are selecting a president.''

Britain's Viscount Bryce was one of the first to assess the US presidency.

As far back as 1888 he wrote: ''How does it happen that this great office, to which anyone can rise by his own merits, is not more frequently filled by great and striking men?''

The viscount's answer was that it was because political parties first seek good candidates - and some who are excellent presidents are poor candidates.

But Viscount Bryce also pointed out that what might be termed ''excellency'' in academia or in the world of the arts would not necessarily provide ''excellency'' in the White House.

''Presidents need not be men of intellectual gifts,'' he wrote. ''Four-fifths of the work is essentially the same kind as that which evolved on the chairman of a large corporation or the manager of a great railway. The basic requirements are common sense, firmness, and honesty.''

Reminded of Bryce's point of view, Cranston reemphasized that ''understanding the issues,'' a prime campaign requirement, was essential for the job of president. ''Also, you must have someone in the White House who can relate to the people of the country - and the campaign certainly shows whether he has that quality,'' he said.

When asked about apparent voter satisfaction with superficial answers from presidential candidates, Cranston replied that this was part of the democratic process.

Cranston says he believes, from a practical standpoint, that the Democrats' part of the process will be improved this year. He thinks that the Democratic National Convention had become too ''pure,'' that it had become too filled with politically inexperienced people who tended to select something less than the best potential presidents. He says he likes the fact that there will be a return to a convention that offers a greater role for a large number of political leaders and officeholders.

''I think,'' he said, ''that the tilt toward conventions without peers who have some informed judgments to make about the candidates has been one of the problems. And I think we've made some move back toward more balance.

''I'm not suggesting that we eliminate primaries, of course. Or the caucuses. But I think the changes made by the Democratic National Committee, that will lead to 25 percent of the delegates having the opportunity to be uncommitted and make an informed choice at the convention, should help in the selection process.''

As to whether these changes could bring a return to the days of the smoke-filled room approach to selecting presidential contenders, Cranston replied, ''The smoke-filled room was by no means perfect. But it was not all bad. It produced some pretty good presidents. I think a balance is a helpful reform.''

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