That this is palace politics must be clear to every halfway thoughtful person. It's not quite the alien baby the Clintons were supposed to have adopted, but because the allegations involve near terrestrials, there's even a chance that they could be true. Besides, this is so much sexier than your average alien plot. While some people have described the national response as puritanical, I think it's more like a Victorian boarding school spanking fantasy. Young master Billy has been accused of improper dalliances, so we are going to flay his nether parts mercilessly while assuring him that it hurts us ever so much more than it hurts him.

But, seriously, what if it were true? Sexual scandal, no less than sexual harassment, is troubling because it is private, embarrassing, humiliating, demeaning. It ought to be handled with dignity and some sheltering of those involved. There is no dignity in any of this. And whether in going after Anita Hill or promoting Paula Jones or in slicing Monica Lewinsky into a thousand little pieces, the thing that this nation still seems not to have ''gotten'' is the need for dignified resolution. But of course real remediation is only relevant if you truly believe that this is not a vendetta against the Clintons--if you really believe that Ken Starr is not at all concerned with his friend Clarence Thomas's vindication, the recoupment of Richard Nixon's reputation, the fulfillment of Ronald Reagan's dreamiest dreams, and the sinister humor of the Terminator's ''gotcha''-style endings.

But what is happening to the entire executive branch is distressing, far beyond the stew of fact versus nonfact: doubt, cast like a rain of stones, is endangering not just domestic stability but the value of our currency, the making of war and peace, the standing of our country in the community of nations. Yet with all that at stake, the level of vehement, unsubstantiated mudslinging, and the rollicking abandonment of any presumption of innocence or office are unprecedented, as though the Super Bowl were mere warm-up for the State of the Union. Pass the chips, put the brewskies on ice. A wild barrage of unproven allegations has hardened into a ''pattern'' of quasifact. The stage is set for ''payback,'' as Rush Limbaugh keeps characterizing the matter; nags and feminazis, up yours, he chortles with a vengeance which he seems to think is being exacted in the name of Vietnam, political incorrectness, oppressed conservatives, cigar smokers, beef eaters, and the global economy.

We Americans have always liked to think of ourselves as a fair people. But I think in recent years we have given ourselves over to a sensationalizing habit of thought--an orgy of voyeurism that is related to the kind of thinking that makes difficult the lives of those who must go through the world as any kind of stereotype--whether ''beautiful blond'' women, ''ugly feminists,'' ''young black males,'' gays, the disabled, or ''straight white men'' for that matter. This is not just about national moods or creeping ''cynicism''; it is also an abandonment of considered procedures for debate in favor of the worst kinds of immorality plays. It is media-assisted political pornography--the same pornography that cost this nation the open input of one of our most intelligent female voices and the potential for a new and expansive image of the First Lady's role. Instead, the horrific typecasting of Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the beginning of this administration, effectively drove her out of any meaningful public life other than photo ops with needy children.

The whoo-dingy, bread-and-circus nature of this should give us pause; the appalling seriousness of what is at stake in this crisis deserves some quiet digestion, some waiting rather than imagining, on the part of us the citizenry. The last thing that gave the media such a will to live was the O.J. Simpson verdict, which, serendipitously enough, threatened to preempt the last State of the Union message. The New York Times even ran a piece about how the scandal has given the press ''a renewed sense of purpose.''

But why this and not the visits of Netanyahu and Arafat? Why this and not the arrest of ''the Serbian Adolf''? Why this and not the story on U.S. visa policies based on ethnicity and looks? Why this and not the unpacking, indeed the slow draining, of the courts? Why do we allow visiting heads of state to be crushed to the side while enquiring minds press to know more about what I have come to think of, ever since Anita Hill, as The Exorcist factor?

It is too easy to dismiss what is going on as just the media trying to sell a product. It is a disgrace and an embarrassment that Matt Drudge and Howard Stern have become the new role models of the free world's free press. Yes, they should have their say, but there can be no better moment to appeal--repeatedly--to the political function of real and reliable information from a viable free press in a democracy that hopes to continue functioning as such.

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