GARY HART did the right thing - both for himself personally and the American people - by withdrawing from the 1988 presidential election. And in his remarks Friday in Denver, where he announced his pullout from the race, Mr. Hart has raised challenging questions about the US political selection process, as well as the role of the press in a democratic society. There is also the issue of future harassment of politicians by the press. This episode is a personal tragedy for the Hart family and the senator's campaign staff. Surely people of goodwill everywhere cannot help feeling a sense of deep compassion for his family and all those caught up in this unhappy situation. And Mr. Hart touches the fount of American idealism by urging that young people in particular, many of whom had enthusiastically backed his campaign, should carry on ``the torch'' of social and political reform.
His withdrawal, of course, means that the Democratic presidential nomination is wide open.
But the impact of Hart's pullout goes far beyond the Democratic Party. It puts indirect pressure on Republicans to ensure that they too select a candidate who meets the highest possible ethical and political standards.
And the American press, which, according to opinion polls has been somewhat tarnished for its role in probing into the private life of Senator Hart, is also affected. While the press continues to have a crucial role in reporting on the lives of candidates, it will have to do so in a way that, more than ever, meets basic journalistic standards of fairness and proportion.
The press must continue to fulfill its responsibility to be a ``watchdog'' - and report the unpleasant as well as the upbeat. But it must do so in a way that does not unfairly injure any candidate, or divert attention from the fundamental issues of the election itself.
One wonders, could the original Miami Herald story have been held a day until loose ends were tidied? Was a journalistic purpose served by rushing the story into print between editions Sunday?
Mr. Hart and his closest advisers, meanwhile, surely realized that they could not run a long and arduous national presidential campaign while at the same time trying to bail out of a scandal.
It's better, of course, that all this has come out now, rather than, say, next May, when Hart might have had 60 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention. Hart had other problems as well: He had carried over a $1.3 million debt from his last presidential bid; he was meeting skepticism from some labor leaders and party stalwarts who perceived him as too ``independent.''
To his credit, Hart was in the vanguard of new ideas within the Democratic fold. He responded, ultimately, to Walter Mondale's devastating crack, ``Where's the beef?'' with carefully worked out position papers on a broad array of subjects; many saw these as quite innovative. Still, one would have to disagree with Mr. Hart's contention that the candidates themselves should not be the issue in an election contest.
American elections are not, and never have been, just about position papers or issues. Would that it were so simple. In a democracy, the character, the individuality, of the candidate is of necessity an essential and relevant factor in the public's decisionmaking process. In the 1952 presidential election, for example, the euphoria of ``We Like Ike'' clearly won out over Adlai Stevenson's position-paper approach.
By stepping out, Mr. Hart turns the Democratic Party over to ``newer'' faces, any one of whom could now emerge from the political pack. And perhaps others will be prompted to come into the race.
A final point seems in order: The Hart case is a sobering reminder that in an election campaign, private morality, in the broadest sense, cannot be separated from public responsibility.
Because of the very nature of the office to which they aspire, presidential candidates must meet the highest standards.