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Guess who's coming to dinner

Who in the whole wide world would you most like to invite to dinner? People magazine asked this question of its readers, and when the votes were counted, the somewhat unpredictable person to put on the honorable bib was Alan Alda. Ronald Reagan was the People's second choice. And in case both Mr. Alda and Mr. Reagan had previous engagements, Johnny Carson, it seems, would do.

If the tete-a-tetem were extended to a ten-best-guests dinner party, chairs would be set for Jacqueline Onassis and Barbara Walters.

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It is irresistibly tempting to speculate on why People readers would want to break bread with Mr. Alda rather than with the President of the United States, charming though Mr. Alda may be. Does the preference suggest that the most popular TV personality (Mr. Alda also won in that category) now outranks our highest elective official?

It is a little hard to imagine that, instead of "George Washington slept here ," landmark houses of the future will bear signs reading: "Alan Alda ate here." Still, the message clearly comes through: The 21-inch figures on the tube are the giants of our lives.

Of the poll leaders People identified, well over half are "TV personalities" -- and that's not counting Mr. Reagan, whose exposure to millions as host of the General Electric Theater first made his political career a possibility.

The guests People readers most want to come to dinner are literally images. And in the instance of the winner we are dealing with the image-of-an-image. For after all, it is not Mr. Alda, the actor, we want to eat with but the nice-guy characters Mr. Alda so ably plays.

A lot of the questions People magazine asked seem to be based on the premise that the fantasy world of TV --its readers than the world of history. And in a lot of the answers illusion obediently responded to illusion.

Who is the "best-looking man in America"? Robert redford -- or more strictly speaking, the picture of Robert Redford, followed by the picture of Burt Reynolds and the picture of Clint Eastwood.

The question, "Which anchorman do you prefer?" gets equal top-of-the-page play with the question, "Which political figure do you trust the most?"

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Furthermore, opinions are more passionate when it comes to the world-through-the-electronic-looking-glass. Ronald Reagan, like Jimmy Carter in '79 and '80, is declared most trusted political figure, indicating that the vote is a reflex for the White House. But the second-place winner is . . . "None" -- a big 18 percent.

On the other hand, no blank is left when an answer pertains to make-believe rather than history. There are no yawns, even when the subject is yawning. People's people get "extremely firm" about the TV personalities they now find "most boring." Evidently no political figure -- not even the "least trusted" Alexander Haig -- can bring hot fire to the eye like Howard Cosell.

Does the triumph of the tube world over the historical world mean that we're all turning into those confused citizens who write to soap opera characters and advise them to stop saying and doing those awful things unless they want to lose their nice spouses and alienate their children?

As if acknowledging that the dividing line is getting wobbly, People editors asked readers who they would like to see make the next crossing from showbiz to politics. You guessed it. The answer is Alan Alda -- a triple-crown winner.

We have only two questions we wish People editors would ask their readers:

1. If Alan Alda came to dinner, would the TV set be rolled into the dining room so everybody -- irony of ironies -- could watch M*A*S*H?

2. If Alan Alda did become President of the United States, would he lose status and slump into second place on that dinner list?

Play out your contract and don't run for the Senate, Johnny Carson. Your dinner invitation may be on its way.

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