Armchair problem solvers

WHO are the smartest people in the world? Frizzy-haired scientists? Scholars in their ivory towers? Wizened philosophers? Hardly. Anyone who reads editorial pages knows that newspaper columnists are the most intelligent, perspicacious human beings.

How did we get so smart? No one is quite sure. But every day print commentators sit by the typewriter (or VDT screen) and wait for something to go wrong; it's usually a short wait and then we swing into action, explaining in no-nonsense prose how the politicians, the voters, the generals, the Girl Scouts , the CIA, and assorted other mortals blew it. There is no hesitation or equivocation and no punches are pulled. Let's listen:

''Plink, plink (space) plunk: what a catastrophically myopic decision.''

''Plunk (hyphen) plink, plink: an error of monumental ramifications.''

''Plinkity, plunkity, plink: My solution to this worldwide conflict will be delineated in the next sentence. . . .''

This outspoken fraternity rarely uses wishy-washy, namby-pamby words like ''perhaps,'' ''on the other hand,'' or ''in my humble opinion.'' Rather, 100 -megaton phrases like ''titanic blunder'' and ''colossal miscalculation'' are launched from our keyboards daily - with the ease of someone pushing a button.

Virtually all columnists claim to be correct but can be divided into two distinct categories: liberal and conservative. The two camps agree on nothing; one wonders if they are writing about the same planet. There is one thing they concur on - that the world is going rapidly downhill because their advice is being shunned by the imbeciles in power.

The liberals believe that sweet reason makes the world go round. For example, they think that armed forces are nice for parades but that they should never ever be used unless it's really really necessary. Whenever US soldiers are deployed somewhere, the left-of-center scribes get in a terrible snit. Rather than crude force, liberal columnists favor billions upon billions in low-interest loans and beneficent, toothy smiles to win the hearts of hostile, scheming third-world regimes.

Their conservative counterparts believe no president is tough enough for their tastes. Military commanders in the heat of battle are never as sharp as these pundits are, bivouacked in front of their keyboards, making judgments after the fact in their secure news rooms. To the right-of-center sorts, the world is akin to a barroom brawl in a John Wayne western.

One puzzling thing about newspaper columnists is that we don't seek political power. Lawyers, athletes, actors, and even an astronaut have sought and gained high elective office; why not sagacious journalists? A very good question, since our columns strongly imply that we could run the country better and solve the world's problems faster than whatever administration happens to be in power.

The answer is simple. Can theater critics act? How many book reviewers write great novels? Why should political pundits be expected to lead nations? Any pro football middle linebacker with a degree in basket weaving can answer that one: ''It is better to slam than be slammed.''

No, ours is an easy job, but somebody has to do it.

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