WASHINGTON. — Washington-- In 1987, Gary Hart, whose adultery was incessant, flagrant and, until then, unreported, said that if journalists followed him around, they would be bored. Some did; they weren't.
Now we are being dragged back into the unpleasant business of deciding what private behavior is relevant to the assessment of political, especially presidential, candidates. That question answers this one: What is legitimate for journalists to scrutinize and publicize?
Most Americans haven't a clue who Bill Clinton is -- he is Arkansas' 44-year-old Democratic governor -- and he has only one chance to make a first impression on the national public. Unfortunately, as he begins dipping a toe into the chilly presidential waters, he is making a splash by declaring what he will not discuss.
Recently, the Republican whom Clinton beat in 1990 said Mr. Clinton could not run for president because he would not answer questions about his private life. Then a Little Rock zany, who enjoys circulating injurious broadsides, said Mr. Clinton should be questioned about extramarital affairs, illegitimate children and drug use.
Next, the Washington Times said Mr. Clinton ''insists he won't answer tough personal questions -- like those about extramarital affairs, illegitimate children and having used drugs.'' That could be read as saying Mr. Clinton himself had enumerated those subjects. He did not.
In 1987, when Douglas Ginsburg's nomination to the Supreme Court sank because of his past marijuana use, Mr. Clinton said he would not answer ''Have you ever . . . '' questions about his personal life. He has made one exception, saying he has never violated drug laws. All he told reporters last month was that his private life is ''none of your business.''
The New Republic used the Washington Times' words as an epigraph to an editorial (''Predators'') deploring the media's ''slow slide toward undiscriminating prurience.'' The magazine said the impulse for ''privacy raiding'' is rooted in the culture of contemporary journalism. Controversies are treated as self-legitimizing news stories by journalists who say they are merely accurately reporting rumors. The respectable press develops a parasitic relationship with reckless media, such as supermarket tabloids (one of those was the first to name the alleged rape victim in the William Kennedy Smith case) or the homosexual publications currently engaged in ''outing'' public figures whom the publications say are homosexual.
Recalling the decorous press silence about the troubled marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and FDR's mistress, The New Republic rightly says society should avoid conflating public and private realms. Sainthood is not necessary for public service and hypocrisy is not the greatest evil.
Writing in Time magazine, Margaret Carlson says some journalists are practicing ''moral terrorism'' and assuming the roles of ''mother superior, party boss, neighborhood snoop and cop on the beat.'' She insists: ''Not every aspiring candidate who has his picture taken with his wife puts his sexual history into play.''
However, she seems to put any presidential candidate's private life into play when she says regarding, their private comportment: ''For the president, the standard must be high: there are no off-hours, and wars can start in the middle of the night.''
But unlimited scrutiny of presidential candidates is not usually rationalized with reference to the war powers. (Yes, a president might, as Kennedy in fact did, tryst far away from the aide carrying the nuclear launch codes.) Rather, unlimited scrutiny of private life is rationalized by saying, implausibly, that the presidency is so awfully important that any evidence regarding ''character'' is of momentous importance to voters.
Concern about ''character'' can be merely a convenient way to justify voyeurism in terms of ''the public's right to know.'' But there is indeed a need to know about particularly lurid private behavior.
In ''A Question of Character,'' today's best-selling biography of John Kennedy, Thomas Reeves, a University of Wisconsin historian, catalogs Kennedy's sexual and (Mr. Reeves insists) related amoralities. Mr. Reeves argues that Kennedy was a bad president -- self-indulgent, morally obtuse, interested in political (and sexual) power only for the pleasure of seizing it -- because of bad character. There was, says Mr. Reeves, a seamless continuum between the private and public spheres of Kennedy's life.
Kennedy's behavior was extraordinarily reckless. Regarding most allegations about most politicians' private lives, the question ''Are they relevant?'' is as important as ''Are they true?''
Today some journalists are asserting a boundless right and bounden duty to obliterate any line between the private and public lives of public figures. Many of these journalists are also lamenting the widespread reluctance to run for office. There is a connection between what these journalists are asserting and what they are lamenting.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.