SOMEONE like James A. Garfield could not be elected president today, even though he was fluent in Greek and Latin and a liberal Republican. He simply could never hack it on television. Public image and show business now elect presidents. The ritual of making promises in speeches and writing a party platform may still persist as part of the American myth, but it's how the person plays his part on television that gathers votes.
In Richard Nixon's great television debate with John F. Kennedy he had bad makeup advice. His speech, many thought, was better than Mr. Kennedy's, but he lost the election in great part because his ``five o'clock shadow'' made him look like a member of the Mafia.
I recently overheard a political discussion between two women seated on the bench at the bus stop comparing the merits of the two presidential candidates.
``I don't understand,'' the lady in the pink pantsuit said, ``why every time a poll comes out, fewer and fewer women say they will vote for George Bush. What did George Bush ever do to women?''
``He ain't done nothing to women,'' the lady in the sleeveless blouse said. ``It's just the way he talks. He sounds like a husband.''
This brought several moments of silence, while the women, I suppose, were trying to imagine a husband as president. Finally Pink Pantsuit said, ``There was Harry Truman. He was a husband type. But it doesn't explain why a larger percent of women are voting for Michael Dukakis. He's awfully short.'' She held her hand about four feet off the ground. ``Besides that, it seems like his head is too heavy. It wobbles when he walks.''
The sleeveless blouse lady looked surprised. ``I never noticed that!''
``Oh, yes. You just watch him on television when he's walking to meet people. In our family we call him Mr. Heavy Head. He seems to be always walking uphill. A president shouldn't have a wobbly head.''
``I never would have voted for Jesse Jackson,'' said sleeveless blouse.
``Jackson doesn't have a heavy head. He seems lightheaded.''
``It's not his head,'' she replied. ``It's his thumb. When he does thumbs up his thumb bends too far back. Like a Russian sickle, or the letter C.''
At this moment the bus came. The last thing I heard was: ``Barbara Bush would make a darling First Lady.''