WASHINGTON. — Now, at last, perhaps even Washington, which is usually the last to learn, even about itself, will at least dimly understand the radical damage done to public life by the Bork confirmation scandal. When that campaign turned political differences into occasions for moral assaults, and was crowned with success, the downward ratchet of civility clicked many times.
Watching the stomach-turning spectacle of the ruining of Clarence Thomas, Americans far from this sick city must be wondering ''How did it come to this?'' Well.
It came to this when the anti-Bork mob obtained from a Washington movie-rental firm records of Judge Bork's rentals, hoping to find embarrassing stuff and found instead, to their bitter disappointment, that his tastes run to Fred Astaire.
It came to this when Planned Parenthood and other liberal lobbies ran anti-Bork ads containing mendacities so gross that, had they concerned groceries, no newspaper or broadcaster would have used them.
It came to this when Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., who, ludicrously, has chaired the whitewashing Ethics Committee (does the name Alan Cranston ring a bell?), lied, saying he voted against Judge Bork because ''the history of his life and his present lifestyle indicated a fondness for the unusual, the unconventional and the strange.'' Of course Senator Heflin did not -- he could not -- provide a shred of evidence for this ''fondness.''
(If the smearing Senator Heflin dislikes being called a liar, let me paraphrase for him Adlai Stevenson: If Mr. Heflin will quit telling lies about good people, I will quit telling the truth about him. The fact that he is regarded as an ethicist says all that needs to be said about today's Senate in which Ted Kennedy can wax indignant about disrespectful treatment of women and not be laughed out of the chamber.)
It came to this when Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said he voted against Judge Bork because he did not ''get satisfactory answers'' to questions he put to him in private. (Having waited three months, he saw Judge Bork three hours before the vote and talked vacuously for 10 minutes.)
It came to this when the smearing of John Tower was done by leaking confidential reports accusing Mr. Tower of, among other things, drunkenness and sexual harassment at times and places when Mr. Tower was not present.
Trashing the truth is now so natural, so unremarked in Washington that there were only worldly smirks and shrugs when George Bush began the Thomas saga by saying two things he and everyone else knows are untrue -- that Thomas is the person best qualified for the Supreme Court, and that his race was irrelevant to his selection.
Then, continuing an execrable practice of the Reagan administration, Mr. Bush put Judge Thomas into the hands of private-sector lobbyists.
They are ''experts'' on everything except anything that should matter, such as ideas, constitutional law -- stuff like that. These expediters, who sell to clients their access to the White House and Congress, do not want to fight for anything because they do not want to fight with anyone wielding power. After all, next month these lobbyists will be lobbying senators about grazing fees or textile imports or whatever else they are by then being paid to believe in.
Soon these clever philistines had Judge Thomas before the Judiciary Committee, cringing and groveling and -- to his credit -- suffering self-loathing as he said, under oath, such things as: He has never even discussed the Supreme Court's 1973 abortion ruling.
Having been coached into apparent inanity or actual dishonesty, Judge Thomas made himself vulnerable to the kind of attack under which he now reels. Asking to be judged by his background rather than his convictions -- by Pin Point, Georgia, rather than his constitutional thinking -- he made the vague question of ''character'' everything, which made anything relevant, and made him comprehensively vulnerable.
This dismal outcome was foreordained when President Bush chose to construe the Bork episode the way most career Washingtonians did -- as proof that ideas are trouble, and certainly not the sort of thing ''realists'' fight for. So Mr. Bush sent before the Judiciary Committee an empty suit named Souter. (If what were at stake were the Supreme Court of Kuwait, Mr. Bush might fight.)
Perhaps we are in a period when things must get squalid before they can get decent. Perhaps Americans shall now achieve the critical mass of disgust. Perhaps there will be a cleansing backlash, complete with term limits, against incumbents. It is simply not necessary -- we can choose otherwise -- for the Judiciary Committee to be the permanent plaything of Joe Biden, who has presided, grinning, over the degradation of the confirmation process.
Let us not, yet, question Anita Hill's sincerity in making her charges, or question the accuracy of them, as memory serves her, 10 years after the alleged events. But let us note how late they have leaked into what has become of Senator Biden's process.
Time will, perhaps, tell the truth, and the importance, of the charges. But nothing can still the suspicion that even if the truth does matter for a moment, that moment will be a fleeting aberration in a city becoming increasingly carnivorous as it becomes decreasingly serious about governance.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.