WHEN I first went to Washington as a cub reporter in 1929, the old method of obtaining nominations for the presidential office in the United States was in disrepute. After all, it had given us Warren G. Harding and the scandals of his administration, the worst orgy of political corruption this country had seen.
The method was derided pejoratively as selecting presidents in a ``smoke-filled room.'' That phrase conjured up pictures of corrupt machine politicians conniving with one another to obtain a candidate who would serve their particular local interest.
The reformers of 1929, led by a political idealist named George Norris from Nebraska, preached the direct primary system as the way to a better future.
Well, Senator Norris and his friends of the reformist movement of his day triumphed. The direct primary as the method of selecting candidates has been growing and expanding ever since. Presidential candidates are no longer selected by an inner group of party leaders trying to agree on a candidate most likely to win the election. They are now selected by an exhausting and interminable process of primary elections, in which special-interest groups finance and support someone most likely to put his own special interest above the general welfare.
The return of Gary Hart to the Democratic Party's lineup of 1988 candidates is an example of how the primary system works. He can come back in the race no matter what he has done in the past, because no one can stop him. He has succeeded by a variety of methods in gaining top ``name identification.'' Everyone has heard of Mr. Hart by now. He goes into the primaries and, provided he stays in all the way, has an excellent chance of going to the Democratic convention next year with a substantial bloc of delegates. He might even win the Democratic nomination, although that is going a bit far.
The point to be noticed here is that under the old system of candidate selection by the elders of the party in the back room at the convention hall, there would be no Gary Hart under serious consideration. The party leaders would have eliminated him from contention long before convention time.
The same goes for the Republican Party. The leaders of the party would, if they had their way, never for an instant think of making Pat Robertson their standard-bearer. They have two highly experienced and reputable candidates in Vice-President George Bush and Sen. Robert Dole. The last thing they want confusing things and raising uncertainties is an evangelical preacher getting into the act.
But Mr. Robertson is as much in the Republican act today as Hart is over among the Democrats. The poll takers now suggest that Robertson will probably go to the Republican convention with 400 or perhaps even 500 delegates. That could be enough to deadlock the convention or make or break a winner.
The primary election system could give more people a chance to play a role in the candidate selection process. But do most people take part in the primary elections?
It is true that the old system gave us Warren Harding and Teapot Dome. But it also gave us Woodrow Wilson, and both Roosevelts. And now the primary system has brought Hart back into the running among Democrats and Robertson among Republicans.
Under the old system the leaders in the Democratic Party would almost certainly pick as their 1988 standard-bearer either Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, or Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
Under the old system the leaders of the Republican Party would happily leave it to the convention to choose between Mr. Bush and Mr. Dole.
Under the primary system it is even conceivable that on election day we will have to choose between Robertson and Hart. Is it really such a good system?