WASHINGTON. — Washington -- I got telephone calls throughout the Bill Clinton-Al Gore bus-capade from people asking why I am not expressing unease over two ''Southern yuppies'' rushing out to woo middle American whites.
''I'd reject them as stupid if they didn't do that,'' I said to one caller, ''because they will need those white votes to win. Don't be fooled by the huge lead Clinton and Gore now have in the polls.''
A black caller asked, ''Don't you think it's terrible that Clinton and Gore are writing off the black vote?''
My reply was that Governor Clinton and Senator Gore know they must have a huge black turnout, and that I have no reservations of race about this Democratic ticket. I've never met Governor Clinton. I've known Al Gore and his father, my Tennessee homestate pols, for more than 30 years. I served on the U.S. delegation to the United Nations with the senior Al during the Cuban missile crisis, and had to loan him $20 to get back to Washington for a crucial vote.
''Hell,'' I said to one who called in the middle of my dinner, ''why should I be worried about two white politicians busing into Louisville and shaking some white hands when I know that Clinton and Gore are mental and emotional light years away from the Theodore Bilbos, 'Cotton Ed' Smiths and Eugene Talmadges of the semi-slave South?' ''
''Why can't you understand,'' I asked another caller, ''that George Bush and Dan Quayle would love for Clinton and Gore to do or say something that would enable the Republicans to portray them as toadies for blacks and Hispanics, and as the enemies of white people?''
Dear Lord, the fun and the price of having a listed telephone number!
''Are you totally satisfied with the post-convention rhetoric of Clinton?'' one woman asked.
''No,'' I replied, ''because Clinton and Gore, in their 'moderate' posture are close to making the mistake that the Democratic nominee, Mike Dukakis, made four years ago -- running in panic from the word 'liberal,' afraid to defend the social programs of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and especially those of Lyndon Johnson, programs that were really great for America 50, and 30 years ago, and need revival today.''
My complaint against Messrs. Clinton and Gore is that they are not saying often enough or loudly enough to America that while the unemployment rate and the economic woes of adult Americans are horrible, most worrisome are the figures regarding teen-age joblessness, teen-age crime, teen-age pregnancies, teen-age victims of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, teen-age murders and the record imprisonments of teen-agers and males in their early 20s.
The ''vision thing'' requires that anyone aspiring to be this nation's president deal frontally with the fact that our future is at risk, that as of today two million teen-agers who seek work can't find it, and even more millions of our teens aren't looking because they have found a poisonous sanctuary in drug dealings, robbing convenience stores, joining youth gangs and languishing in the brooding, sometimes musical cocoons of alienation.
We need new versions of the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which rescued so many youth during the Great Depression. We need a massive new WPA, a Works Progress Administration, that will put people to work building and rebuilding the schools, the bridges, the roads, the libraries that are the infrastructure that has undergirded America's greatness.
We need a recommitment to Johnson's Federal Aid to Higher Education Act of 1965, a law that delivered sophisticated intelligence skills to millions of ''middle class'' white and non-white high school graduates.
I sense that Messrs. Clinton and Gore fear that to talk about these old ''social programs'' will make them vulnerable to the traditional Republican charges of ''tax and spend.'' But if Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore cannot make Americans understand that programs that make people scientists, inventors, journalists, poets and taxpayers instead of welfare recipients are a national blessing, they are too undiscerning and unpersuasive to lead this nation.
Messrs. Clinton and Gore grew up in an economic and social milieu that was only two decades and a couple of Supreme Court decisions removed from mine. They know that the CCC camps, the Job Corps, the WPA, the old National Youth Administration and the newer Pell Grants for college, the GI Bill, never ripped off American taxpayers. America got many dollars of wealth and greatness for every dime it invested in its people.
I don't give a damn whether Messrs. Clinton and Gore woo whites in Evansville, Ind., or blacks in Pine Bluff, Ark. I just want them to dare to tell the truth about what we must do and pay for to lift ourselves out of nation-destroying despair.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.