EVER since Richard Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy and a sloppy makeup artist, running for the presidency has taken on aspects of a screen test. Still, with the fade-out of those two old pros, Ronnie and Nancy, it has been assumed that the Washington known as Hollywood East would be going west again. And so it came as a surprise when George Bush, in the acceptance speech intended to establish him as ``his own man,'' snarled, ``Make my 24-hour time period.'' This line was, of course, a clone of President Reagan's sneer at his enemies, ``Make my day'' - a direct quote, in turn, of Clint Eastwood's famous three little words as ``Dirty Harry,'' challenging a hoodlum to pick up his gun so that the world's most conservative policeman could blow the villain away with his Magnum.
Further movie tough-guy talk streamed from the corner of the Republican candidate's mouth, including the chippy little suggestion: ``Read my lips.''
The President himself pulled out his never-fail tag about winning one for the Gipper.
The freshly picked vice-presidential candidate, Dan Quayle, joined the Hollywood inner circle by referring to a film with Hoosier in the title, while movie-savvy observers noted that Quayle in his National Guard uniform looked like Robert Redford in his Navy uniform in ``The Way We Were.''
A political analyst, finding candidates wandering in and out of movie scripts at will, must ask himself: Is this the real Reagan legacy - to turn the Beltway permanently into Sunset Boulevard?
Where does real life end and reel life begin?
Are Bush and Dukakis doomed to compete not just as candidates but as two supporting actors suddenly fighting for the leading man's role?
And if, in fact, Hollywood scripts are becoming the frame of reference for Washington politics, is movie-macho the only style in fashion?
The box office reports from the White House are not reassuring. Richard Nixon watched ``Patton'' again and again. Ike loved shoot-'em-up westerns. There is no evidence that Lyndon Johnson - or any other president - ever became an Ingmar Bergman fan. Sensitive little imports scored to subtitles will never make it with the Oval Office audience, it appears - not while Sylvester Stallone is still redoing ``Rambo'' or one last print remains of John Wayne in ``Green Berets.''
A White House projectionist with only one set of eardrums to give to his country's war movies had better put earplugs on his expense account.
Speaking of patriotism, is it just a coincidence that patriotism - wartime patriotism - seems to be the main issue of debate since the conventions?
One ought not to exaggerate - the way movie scenarios do. Reel life is not real life, and it would certainly be going too far to say: You are the movies you watch. But on the other hand, can anybody claim there is no connection when presidents and vice-presidents get a dreamy look in their eyes and reach for the popcorn as people like Ollie North, in uniform, walk through the door?
The culture of American politics tends to favor the metaphor of war, or at least the terminology of the barracks, as Geraldine Ferraro found out last time around after debating George Bush.
At some point the discourse of election '88 will rise above the sayings of ``Dirty Harry,'' and the body language will get beyond who salutes the snappiest. Still, the next president - the man with his finger on the nuclear button while in total command of the screening room - could make our day by scheduling ``Babette's Feast,'' say, instead of ``Young Guns,'' not to mention ``The Blob.''
A Wednesday and Friday column