Why do politicians get in so much trouble often over silly things but get away with lying through their teeth about really important stuff – – apparently, because they think they can engage in whatever behavior suits them because power is its own reward.

The thing about recent incidents and those that regaled us in the past is how political enemies use them – – the larger the target, the more venomous the attacks. To be sure President Clinton’s behavior was wanton and careless, but did his peccadilloes make him a less able executive? Did the sleazy anecdotes Kenneth Starr produced add up to an impeachable offense or did he enter a perfect political storm embraced by an opposition hoping to bring down a presidency? In the end the whole exercise wasted precious time and kept leaders from addressing issues of greater significance.

What does it take in fact to actually destroy an office-holder? In New York Eliot Spitzer, a popular and adept political leader was forced to resign because of his dalliances with prostitutes on ‘company time.’ Never mind that he was an able administrator and an astute observer of doings on Wall Street. Quite possibly being a financial-industry watchdog made him vulnerable to political sniping that proved lethal and drove him from office. One can only ponder who benefited from Spitzer’s ouster.

On the other hand, Rod Blagojevich had to be practically detonated from office by the Illinois legislature. And House Ways and Means Chairman Rangel has tried to use the-dog-ate-my-homework defense for failing to file accurate tax returns regarding his island rentals – – the wife takes care of that he says. Surely Governor Patterson engaged in a clear abuse of his office when he intervened in an assault case for a friend. But corruption charges against Democrats don’t ensure smooth sailing for Republicans.

On their side, Louisiana’s David Vitter who played with prostitutes still holds forth in the Senate as if he were a real standup guy – – no resignation there. And John Ensign retains his seat despite an extra-marital affair with a staffer and attempts to buy off her husband. South Carolina’s Governor Sanford continues in office despite his Argentinean Mistress and the fact that he lied about his whereabouts and could not be reached for days. As chief executive of his state this would seem to be impeachable behavior but things may be different in South Carolina and besides he’s in love.

The salacious carryings-on of politicians may make prurient hearts beat faster, but deceit in the public forum is cause for far greater concern. Why do Republicans continue to call health-care legislation a government takeover that will put Washington between patient and doctor, ration health care and lead to Socialism or Communism, depending on whatever sounds more menacing? They know nothing of the kind is true, but it makes for effective partisan rhetoric especially since ours is a famously uninformed, poorly educated electorate and a forgetful one into the bargain.

Could a disgruntled populace really be lulled into believing they’d be better off returning the reins of power to a party that brought us to the edge of disaster and for whose policies we are still paying a price? How could CNN think it appropriate to interview former, and currently under indictment, Republican House leader Tom Delay? True he hasn’t been proven guilty of money laundering, but he is hardly an esteemed elder statesman.

Delay’s comments regarding Jim Bunning’s block of an unemployment-benefit extension were ludicrous, especially his suggestion that Democrats could have avoided “hero” Bunning’s hold if only they had agreed to pay for the extension – – this from a man who kept the House vote on the Medicare Drug bill open for three hours while he threatened and cajoled members of his party to vote for passage of the unfunded mandate. Given a brief hiatus, evidently, even disgraced politicians can re-enter society, go dancing and find a spotlight to cover them with a patina of semi-respectability.

But before Republicans get too carried away with thoughts of applying the political hot button to Democratic corruption in the ranks they need to be reminded of their own party’s fault lines. During his tenure as CEO of Halliburton Mr. National Security Cheney countenanced dealings with Iran in spite of US trade sanctions. And John McCain was furious when his colleagues in the Senate admonished him for his association with and acceptance of favors from notorious Lincoln Savings and Loan proprietor Charles Keating. Republicans may smell blood in the water, but they’ve been swimming with the sharks for a long time now.