WASHINGTON — Washington.--JUST WHAT behavior Americans will tolerate i their public officials must baffle any beginner who aspires to a life in politics but doesn't know whether his past frivolities disqualify him or give him a leg up.
Corporate careerists have been known to launder their professional resumes before applying for that next step up the ladder. Political candidates have done the same thing. But it's hard for a socially energetic citizen to get away with prettifying his private past when the two-party system almost guarantees that at some time, somebody in the other party shared it.
Some American politicians have been ousted for sexual shenanigans, but more prominent ones have gotten away with escapades that seem to charm rather than scandalize their fans. It's hard to predict which way reaction will run.
Who would have thought that in this day and age, out in the progressive state of Minnesota, a gubernatorial campaign could be decided by a friendly evening of skinny-dipping? Nine years ago? With the accused's own daughter taking part?
Republican candidate Jon Grunseth denies that he entered this particular meet. If there was any skinny-dipping it was after he went to bed, he says. But the Associated Press reports that when asked whether he had ever disported thus, he said, ''Yeah. So what?''
It's not clear whether the resulting hubbub is based on his alleged indulgence on that certain night in 1981 or his defiant admission that sometime, somewhere he had indeed experienced the joys of bathing in the buff. Whether he dipped or not, the controversy apparently has torpedoed his effort to take the place of Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich.
Amid all this, the GOP state auditor, Arne Carlson, who had run second in the party primary announced as a write-in candidate. He was inspired by a party poll that showed he was one of five Republicans who could beat Mr. Perpich, and Mr. Grunseth was not. But it's unlikely that either can win when one is a write-in and the other is burdened with scandal.
Any national poll asking Americans whether they have ever been skinny-dipping would find a fat percentage saying Yea.
Calling skinny-dipping a scandal in 1990 must amuse mellow observers in California, for example, where hot tubs are standard household equipment and nude beaches ornament the shoreline. It seems especially peculiar when both the alleged dipper and his rival are obviously Scandinavian, like so many other Minnesotans. After all, Scandinavians invented the sauna, which is traditionally endured in the nude and terminated with a roll in the snow.
True, the alleged particulars of that night in '81 make it different from the usual pool party. The two women who have sworn that Mr. Grunseth encouraged them to jump in nude were then 13 and 14 years old. He was 35. They say they declined, but that Mr. Grunseth's 13-year-old daughter and another 16-year-old girl doffed their clothes and joined him. One of the complainants says he also pawed at her.
While the ages and the pawing allegation give the party a different flavor, nothing I have read explains why the offended young women only came forward nine years later, shortly before this election. Mr. Grunseth, in refusing to resign, said his road to victory had been ''paved with my reputation and the tears of my family, and I've got a right to drive down that road.'' Governor Perpich wisely said the whole mess was the Republicans' problem, not his.
The extra-marital adventures of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were clearly more serious than a Minnesota pool party, but they were not publicly known during their lifetimes. Yet even now, after their flings have been disclosed, those men remain heroes to millions of upright Americans.
The moral for the puzzled aspiring officeholder may be that heroes can get away with such excursions, while ordinary mortals can't. Clearly, it matters where the candidate is running. Recent evidence in Washington also suggests that those who are up-front about their mistakes can get away with them, but hypocrites can't.
The nation has wobbled along for 214 years without any clear verdict on whether a resume that includes skinny-dipping precludes high office. Hordes of would-be politicians are holding their breath, wondering whether to be sorry for youthful frolics, waiting for the returns from Minnesota.