GOV. MARIO CUOMO kept telling reporters that he questioned whether he had the stuff to be president. They saw it as an expression of humility - at least for a politician. Now as he has dropped out of the 1988 race, even before he was formally in, he is once again questioning his capacities. It is refreshing - but no way to rise above being governor of New York. The real reason Mr. Cuomo decided to stay where he was: his anxiety over the scrutiny he and his family would receive if he made the run for the White House.
Cuomo has disclosed these fears in his several Washington get-togethers with reporters over breakfast during the last few years. He loves the limelight - and hates it, too. That's normal for politicians. Some have tougher hides than others. Ronald Reagan is one of those. Or maybe it's the actor's skill that enables him to laugh and joke in the face of fierce criticism.
Cuomo's critics in the press say he is exceedingly thin skinned; hence his reluctance to move himself and his family into the goldfish bowl of presidential politics. This accusation of being ``thin skinned'' is interesting - since the same reporters who pin this on the governor also depict him as quite tuned in to the needs of the people of New York State. Is it possible that the same person who is sensitive to people's problems may very naturally be sensitive to what people are saying about him?
The fact is that those who run for high public office in the United States are crucified in the press and in the arena of public opinion and gossip. In no other country that I know of is high-level office-seeking - and holding - such a grueling experience. That includes Britain, where public scrutiny is bad enough.
We remember how rough it got for President Jimmy Carter during some of his dark days. Even a killer rabbit was supposed to have tried to attack him when he was out fishing - according to a needling press.
President Gerald Ford had a lot of cheap-shot journalism to contend with. From the time he faltered while coming down a stairway from a plane in Europe - and later when he fell while skiing - the cameras and reporters were out to depict this fine, well-coordinated athlete and good-natured fellow as a stumbler. Never mind that he had a ``trick knee'' from playing football in college. Don't expect much compassion from the media - or sensitivity, either.
President Reagan is going through a crucible of criticism these days. It can be argued that he brought it on himself. But he's getting a lot of pettiness, too, from the press. Certainly Mr. Cuomo, in looking at Mr. Reagan's current situation, should be pardoned if he might say to himself: ``Hey, something like that just might happen to me. So why should I volunteer for that kind of grief?''
There's also the unspoken question of personal safety for a president or would-be president and family. Besides the assassination of President John Kennedy there were attempts on the lives of Presidents Ford and Reagan. And for older Americans there is the distinct recollection of a mayor being killed by a bullet intended for Franklin Roosevelt.
So go into any living room and conduct a little informal poll on ``Who here would like to be President?'' You will inevitably receive this response from some, if not most, of the people gathered there: ``Who would want to be president? Not I.''
Then you will hear the reasons these people feel that being president is a thankless job, despite the great public respect accorded it.
They don't want any part of the personal effort that must be expended in gaining the presidency - particularly the long period of being away from home while on the campaign trail. They wouldn't want the media prying into their lives. But - above all - they wouldn't want to incur the risk of an assassin's bullet. Indeed, they see this risk being greatly compounded in recent years by the rise of terrorism worldwide.
Why is it, one is compelled to ask, that no one ever seems to say or write how courageous those people are who run for president? Instead, the common view is that they have egos that can be satisfied only by being in such an important position.
Doubtless, ambition does help these people overcome whatever reluctance they have about being president. But it takes more than that to seek the presidency. Those who do have to be brave and possess more than an ordinary desire to serve the public - together with the confidence that they can do the job better than others.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.