I don't know any better than you do what to make of the allegation by two Arkansas state troopers that Bill Clinton is a philanderin' fool. But I do know this: Journalists who drop a bombshell this big get the cold sweats when the detonation doesn't shake loose any corroboration.

With big bucks to be made in today's conscienceless media markets and hardly any opprobrium attached to a little confessed hanky panky - the hanky-pankee can always claim a swooning victimization - there's every incentive for Clinton's supposed rompmates or for more wink-and-nudge troopers to cash in.Instead, the only new information we've heard so far calls the honesty of the two tell-all officers into substantial question.

Whatever we have here in detail, we have in general another example of our politics being relentlessly driven into an endemic disrepute that deeply undermines us in our central mission of democratic governance.

Yes, there has always been an element of noisy irrelevance in American politics - empty boasts, silly sloganeering, even trash-mouth charges. Few figures since have been as doggedly slandered as a supposed sexual wanton as Thomas Jefferson was, or vilified in such lurid language.

But those excesses were not the core of politics; they were asides. Similarly the business of trying to get the goods on opponents. Though common, the practice was generally halfhearted and hap-hazard.

Now, no fewer than 75 professional political consulting firms specialize in "opposition research."

That can mean only scouring an opponent's voting record and public statements and putting them in the worst light. But increasingly it is a euphemism for tearing lives apart in a search for any little tax wobble, old dalliance or unguarded comment that can then be used to turn the target, though usually no worse than you or me, into a monster.

The atmosphere is further soured by demagogic talk radio, tilted steeply to the right and devoted to making even moderate political figures seem demons.

No other new president has had to establish his administration in a climate of commercialized contempt as Clinton has had to do.

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The president is routinely cast by talkmasters as a socialist, an astounding lie.

The effect of all this is to harden a broad and unforgiving disdain toward our politics, with a corrosive assumption that all politicians are scornful of the public and if not crooks yet then crooks-to-be; that every act of the political system is committed in cynicism.

The truth is that, despite scoundrels, occasional boneheadedness and the very real distortions produced by special-interest money, most candidates and elected officials are decent and dedicated and genuinely concerned about the common good, as they variously understand it.

You really want to get mad? Then get mad at the people who have made a industry out of taking our disillusionments, enlarging and envenoming them and then retailing them back to us.

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