NEW YORK. — Last month I found a message on my answering machine saying that the vice-presidential candidate of the Socialist Party had died. Could I help get his obituary into the papers? (''And by the way, you wouldn't want to run for vice president would you?'')
I'm a proud, though inactive, member of the Socialist Party and I agree with its platform. Still, I hesitated to become a candidate. Could I withstand the media scrutiny?
My taxes are straightforward enough; my sex life is even more boring than George Bush's.
But there's always something that you wouldn't want seen in the glare of publicity. I thought about that elderly man who sent me the manuscript that I lost. I kept putting him off till he finally stopped calling. And my grown daughter says that I often made jokes when what she needed was a hug. (Will that play like Patti Davis and Nancy Reagan?)
I don't suppose my rivals wince at things like that. After all, one of them is a governor who flew home to facilitate an execution in order to appear as tough as the other one, who has proved both in the White House and the CIA that he's not afraid to order killings. And I'm worried that my mother will tell the press that I forgot her birthday last year.
I guess I deserve to be the Socialist candidate. And they deserve me. If capitalism is the theory that the worst people, acting from their worst motives will somehow produce good, than socialism is an extension of ''family values.'' (Even if you don't like him, you wouldn't let your brother-in-law sleep in the gutter, would you?)
In Norway and Sweden these egalitarian values, administered by rather unsentimental socialists, have produced dynamic economies. But here, the tiny Socialist Party attracts nice people like me. Well, I can get tough, too.
''If I'm the candidate,'' I bargain with the party, ''we're going to put more stress on exposing that deceptively titled North American Free Trade Agreement.'' ''Fine with us,'' they answer.
''And I demand my own button.''
''You got it,'' said the presidential candidate, J. Quinn Brisben. // ''With all the button collectors out there, we always make our money back on a button.''
At first it seemed almost quaint that the vice-presidential nominee of the party of Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas,
Margaret Sanger, Helen Keller and W.E.B. Dubois has to wait till after 11:00 p.m. to make long-distance phone calls. I was tickled when I was asked to give the keynote address at the party's Indiana state convention to be held in Terre Haute, in Eugene V. Debs' attic. What a bit of radical retro chic!
Then I made a mistake. I turned on television to watch my opponents. It no longer seems cute or campy to be the candidate with a $1,500 campaign chest when you're the only one explaining the difference between a health-insurance ''program'' that would prove once again that government programs don't work and a genuine pick-your-doctor and get taken care of health plan -- the kind Canadians and many Europeans take for granted.
It's true that ''socialized medicine'' like Social Security, was once a utopian scheme of the Socialist third party. But it's mainstream now. My job is the ''vision thing.'' Where's the second party to implement this well tested reform?
Discussion of the North American Free Trade Agreement was even more distressing. It's being scored as though it were a tug-of-war over jobs between the U.S., Mexico and Canada with Carla Hills negotiating for our team. In fact, Mexican, American and Canadian capitalists, sitting down together, have drawn up their declaration of corporate independence. If implemented, it will lower U.S. wages so effectively that after a while no one will bother moving factories to Mexico. Many Mexicans oppose it, too, because it locks in their dreadful sweatshop conditions.
If Mr. Clinton really explained what President Bush has cooked up, he'd win, for sure. But once he started, the campaign contributions would vanish. Which is to say, if he were a serious candidate, he'd no longer be a serious candidate.
If there were a normal opposition party in the U.S., I could be happy talking about pure, democratic socialism on college campuses and phone-in shows. But it's terrifying to be the candidate of a third party that has to do the work of the second.
What started as a lark has become a fearful responsibility.
Candidate Barbara Garson is the author of the anti-war play ''Macbird'' and the new economic comedy ''Security.''