IN the midst of the flurry over the private lives of presidential candidates, the Gershwin musical ``Of Thee I Sing'' burst on the scene here in Washington to help clear the air. This Broadway hit of the 1930s tells of a presidential campaign concerned with traditional, uncomplicated love. Indeed, the platform is based on love. The campaign strategy: The National Party's nominee, John P. Wintergreen (remember the song ``Wintergreen for President''?), will marry the winner of the party's sponsored beauty contest in Atlantic City. That of itself should persuade the voters to elect Mr. Wintergreen.
Zany? Of course. But it was lots of fun to be a reporter ``covering'' a campaign not bogged down in the questioning of candidates' extramarital conduct!
The revival evoked much acclaim from Washington critics while it was at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Skeptics wondered whether the satirical references to earlier campaigns and to the Hoover administration would be relevant today. They were. ``Of Thee I Sing'' pokes fun at ineffectual, bumbling leaders, shallow campaigns, and government scandal.
Wintergreen wins the nomination because his name is thought to be ``presidential sounding,'' and the vice-presidential nominee, Alexander Throttlebottom, is a complete unknown. The plot thickens when Wintergreen falls in love and marries a secretary at the pageant. This means spurning the winner, which he lives to regret.
The new bride and bridegroom then stump the country on their ``love'' platform (``Love is Sweeping the Country''), winning in a landslide. The complexities then begin to pile up, and I'm not certain I got it all straight. There are some presidential impeachment proceedings in the Senate that stem from the charges that the jilted beauty queen has endured mental suffering.
But the President's wife saves the day by breaking into the Senate chamber and announcing, ``I'm about to be a mother.'' Thus, Wintergreen is off the hook and the charges are dropped simply because the country has never impeached a father-to-be. Something like that.
I saw a road show of this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical when I was a youngster. I loved the songs but was put off by the satire. I was a little miffed that those people on the stage should treat the presidency and the government with such disrespect.
Today I find the show's message a happy one, and the satire not at all bitter: We should remember that our leaders are a lot like us - with flaws as well as virtues. We should keep our eyes on them and what they do.
It also reminds us that our government and election processes can be improved. Much can be done to make sure that the best of the brightest are elevated to the highest positions in the land.
The play, with its light touch, was a welcome break. The audience laughed and laughed. But it reminded some that for years the Washington scene, with little relief, has been bleak. There were the Lyndon Johnson years with the turmoil over Vietnam, followed by Richard Nixon and Watergate. There was the travail over the hostages under Jimmy Carter. And now the congressional hearings that are darkening Ronald Reagan's final White House years.
The President is trying to resolve his problems and once again be effective. His trip to Venice and West Berlin helped change the subject, at least a bit. His follow-up TV address to the nation may have helped also.
Now Mr. Reagan, with an approach that helped rally the nation behind him in the past, is reaffirming his agenda - opposing taxes and calling for spending cuts for domestic programs. He is confronting the Democrats in Congress, branding them as big spenders. This tactic has worked before. It may again.
Or, like Wintergreen, he and Nancy could take to the hustings with the song ``Love Is Sweeping the Country.''
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.