IN our darkest hours, first in the Great Depression and then in World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt brought us hope. That's what those of us who lived through those years remember most about that remarkable man. Moreover, I think that since that time there's been a tendency among voters to measure presidents and presidential aspirants against the towering figure that FDR has become in memory.
Before Roosevelt there had been Silent Cal and efficient Herbert. Then came the ebullient FDR with that jaunty smile, spreading confidence wherever he went. And that wonderful voice! When I listened on the radio to his fireside chats, I just knew that here was a man who was going to fix things.
No, I don't think we're waiting for another FDR. But I do think his lasting mark is that since his long years at the helm we like our presidents to be able to face adversity with a smile and, above all, to give us hope that they can fix the mess we always seem to be in.
We don't always get presidents like that. But that's why, in my opinion, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan were so formidable as candidates and fared so well in the presidency. They were happy warriors who, although two were Republicans, were able, in the minds of the electorate, to measure up to the FDR legacy.
The original ''Happy Warrior'' was Al Smith, who ran against Hoover and lost by a landslide in 1928. Smith's demeanor was a decided plus. But he couldn't survive the voters' opposition to having a Roman Catholic in the White House.
Hubert Humphrey leaned heavily on the FDR legacy. Indeed, he bounced around the country purveying the ''politics of happiness.'' But Humphrey couldn't overcome the burden of being blamed, as vice president to Lyndon Johnson, for carrying on the unpopular Vietnam War.
This brings us to today. How does President Clinton measure up to the ''Happy Warrior'' test? Somewhat, I think. Certainly, as a candidate he outstripped his adversaries as a communicator of hope. But part of the FDR legacy is sticking to your guns in the face of adversity. Clinton isn't doing too well on that test. But how about those potential Republican cadidates? Dole, Gramm, Alexander, Buchanan, Lugar, Specter, Dornan, Keyes. Oh, yes, Wilson may come in. Maybe I'm leaving someone out. Anyway, I am yet to be convinced that there is any ''Happy Warrior'' of the FDR or Reagan stripe among them.
The leader of the pack at this time is Dole. He's maintaining a positive, pleasant tone and is proven to be a highly competent Senate leader. Dole is also holding out hope that he can do something about the big problems of the day: crime, drugs, immorality. But his public image is still one of a rather sardonic fellow who can cut deeply with a rapier wit.
Gramm, a strong contender, certainly isn't the happy candidate. He's unhappy about everything and too often seems angry about it. That isn't the sort of candidate who has an easy time in making it all the way to the top.
Maybe there's a winner among those Republicans. Certainly, the polls show that a ''credible'' GOP candidate could, as of now, beat Clinton.
And Clinton is in all kinds of trouble, much of it coming from those in his own party who feel he is waffling on too many issues, and more trouble doubtless lies ahead for the president in the Whitewater hearings.
But Clinton might still be able to overcome his liabilities and squeak through. He claims the mantle of Roosevelt. And, particularly on the campaign trail, there is a superconfident air about him -- together with a smiling, cheery personality -- that to many is reminiscent of FDR. This ''happy fellow'' quality could make Clinton's opponent look drab by comparison and be the decisive factor in a contest that seems bound to be close.