REMEMBER THAT silent-movie classic in which Laurel and Hardy destroyed their neighbor's car while he grimly took apart their house? The same tit-for-tat demolition is happening within the Democratic Party.
Gov. Douglas Wilder is a Virginian, a Democrat, a Korea combat hero, the first elected black governor of any state. Sen. Charles Robb is a Virginian, a Democrat, a Vietnam combat hero, LBJ's son-in-law, chairman of the Democrats' Senatorial Campaign Committee. Both want to be president and they have long detested each other.
Robb and his operatives suspect that Wilder's hand was in the recent rehash of stories about Robb partying in the early '80s. The governor denied this but ordered his state police to investigate any intimidation of people who accused the senator of anything.
Wilder and his coterie suspect that the hardball players on the Robb staff were behind the electronic eavesdropping and taping of the governor's cellular calls from his car in 1988. A transcript that recently surfaced in the Washington Post had him saying of Robb, "He's been reduced to nothing."
In this mud-wrestle, Wilder is winning and Robb is losing.
Robb's aides stupidly called in a former Miss Virginia who was claiming to have had an affair with the senator and told her to warn her private-eye pal that he would have IRS problems. The woman had secretly "wired" herself, however, and NBC gleefully broadcast her recording of the aide's blustering.
The Virginia senator submitted to a lengthy examination about what he characterized as an innocent massage in a hotel room. He broke the political rule of dignified denial: Don't lie, but never go into detail.
Wilder took a feistier approach. Although the eavesdropping of his car phone shows him derogating his fellow Democrat, he protests that he was not the source of the Robb smears; moreover, he issued a statement from a European jaunt that the cellular invasion showed him to be "the victim of crime."
Robb, on the ropes and under pressure from his senatorial colleagues, has just suspended all three of his top staff aides. He admitted he did know about the taping of Wilder, adding he hadn't listened to it and had ordered it destroyed -- but not until a couple years after it came in over the transom.
The triumphantly victimized governor has said from Europe he would agree to meet with the senator, not in Washington but in Richmond, where presumably he would take a surrender in full gubernatorial regalia.
The question lurking in evil political minds: What else do the Robb forces or supporters have in the files?
The divorced governor has gutsily defended his friendship with the recently divorced wife of the billionaire John Kluge. Provoked by the humiliation of the senator, however, Robb supporters are seeking evidence of a relationship in the '80s; perhaps to forestall that, the governor is reminding snoopers that telephone eavesdropping is a crime.
Who needs all this stuff? Here are two high officials with good futures, on the same side of the same party, reducing each other's reputations to rubble -- for what? To be the vice presidential candidate on a losing ticket in 1992? The game is not worth the candle.
Republicans in and beyond Virginia are quivering in their piety. Up to now, national GOP strategists had been worried that conservative Douglas Wilder would push radical Jesse Jackson off the presidential primary trail, and thereby save Democrats from going too far left again.
But Wilder, in at least contributing to the Robb ruination, has allowed personal vindictiveness to show; he loses by winning. Jesse Jackson, saved by the feud, will pick up delegates in the proportional-representation Democratic primaries; that's great news for Republicans.
Thus do bugged belles and taped cells have their effect on great events. Twenty years ago, electronic eavesdropping was used unlawfully to plug security leaks or learn financial secrets; now, with advanced mikes and scanners, it is being used to entrap fellow hardballers and to snatch gossip out of the air.
Non-racial, non-ideological, non-partisan -- sleaze oozes on.