REMEMBER the dim, dead days when presidents like Eisenhower, Truman, Nixon, Ford, and Carter served the country, then settled down in tranquillity to write their memoirs? No longer. Now the book comes first and publication day ranks with primary day.
Newt Gingrich, whose book, ''To Renew America,'' tops the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, faces a strong contender in Colin Powell's ''My American Journey,'' coming soon to a bookseller near you. Already Gingrich, who has never said he would run for president, is saying he is less likely to run if Powell, who hasn't said either, does. Bill Bradley, retiring from the Senate, and also a noncandidate, or not-yet candidate, told us in Aspen he has finished his book, the last word of which is ''possibilities.'' Ross Perot has a new book about saving Medicare. Lamar Alexander has a book coming out about his American travels, not to be confused with ''My American Journey.'' And Dan Quayle, who's forsworn the 1996 race, has a new book about - what else? - values.
Why this mad rush of politicians, most of them not campaigning, to publish in time for the campaign? For one thing, dummy, because you sell more books if people think you may run for president. For another, as political maven Norman Ornstein noted to me, because a media-age book tour is a great way of running for president without saying so. You don't have to account to the Federal Election Commission for media appearances.
It is too early to say what this phenomenon of running by writing will do to the political face of America. Will politicians think differently about English as an official language when publishers tell them about translations in the works? Will ghost writers get to write their own stories of how they turned semi-illiterates into heroes?
Meanwhile, one waits for the first Time magazine excerpt from the Powell book - a little less breathlessly after the unauthorized leak to Newsweek. It is whispered by those paid to whisper tempting snippets that Powell reveals having voted for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He served as a White House fellow under Johnson, but he also served Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, and which of those did he vote for? That we may or may not learn when Powell appears with Barbara Walters, Mike Wallace, or Oprah. Suddenly the political life in America is the literary life. And every publishing tycoon can dream of having a leg up in the White House.