AFTER seeing the film ``A World Apart'' recently, I was surprised to realize that it had meaning for me in connection with what I thought was a totally unrelated subject: the presidential campaign. The film, based on fact, tells the story of Molly, a young South African white girl on the verge of womanhood whose mother, a journalist, is jailed by the government for actively supporting the black cause.
In one wrenching scene Molly, in tears, tells her mother she needs her just as much as the black people do. Her mother tenderly acknowledges her daughter's feeling that she is being abandoned but tells her that she is now old enough to see that no matter what the personal cost, her mother must help in the fight against apartheid. Molly begins to understand.
Few of us face the monumental decision this South African journalist and her daughter did, but we all face smaller ethical and moral challenges every day. And our collective decisions form our society. If we want a better society, we need individually to make better choices, more selfless choices, and act on those choices.
I thought of the two presidential candidates - each trying to outdo the other with promises of how voters can personally profit by choosing him. Neither candidate exhorts me to look beyond my own narrow self-interest and thereby to live a larger, richer life. Neither candidate is telling the whole truth about the issues.
Both campaigns talk about values, but the words sound stale when one candidate savages the other and the other feels he must respond in kind. Both talk about patriotism, but a degrading campaign seen on TV here and abroad demeans the presidency, the country, and its people.
And then there is the question of George Bush's motivation in selecting Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate. Even many Republicans concede it was a choice made without much consideration for the consequences if Senator Quayle had to step into the presidency.
Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey decided not to run for president on the Democratic ticket although pressed to do so by his party. He didn't run, he said, because he wasn't yet prepared for the presidency. How much more respect Quayle would have earned if he had responded to Mr. Bush's offer, ``I can't accept the nomination for vice-president because, should the need arise, I am not yet qualified to step in as president.''
In 1952, Adlai Stevenson, a highly cultured man who was serving as governor of Illinois and who had broad experience in international affairs, was drafted for the Democratic nomination for president at his party's national convention in 1952. One writer said that his acceptance speech was one of the strangest ever uttered in American politics. Mr. Stevenson said, in part: ``That my heart has been troubled, that I have not sought this nomination, that I could not seek it in good conscience, that I would not seek it in honest self-appraisal, is not to say that I value it less. Rather, I revere the office of the presidency of the United States. Let's talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you're attacked, but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of mankind....''
Neither Vice-President Bush nor Gov. Michael Dukakis can be as bad as the campaign each is running. That means they feel they must cater to some of the lowest forms of persuasion in order to sway the public. What a devastating conclusion they have drawn about the American people. That conclusion needs to be challenged; voters need to refuse to be seduced by the empty promises of personal profit and by thinking maturely and deeply about the issues. They need to demand a much higher standard of the candidates - and of themselves.
Ms. Mouckley is a free-lance writer and former correspondent for the Monitor.