HERE'S a suggested response for elected officials of a certain age when asked whether they smoked marijuana:
When political handlers are putting together position papers in the years to come, they should include an appendix they might as well call the Rolling Papers.
Exhibit A might be the way in which Gov. Bill Clinton handled the dope issue when it came up this year. He backed, he filled, he clung to the letter of the question ("I have never broken the laws of my country"), and finally he said that, like so many other people of his generation, he did smoke marijuana when young, at Oxford when he was a Rhodes scholar. He then went on to explain.
One result was that Billy Crystal, who has made the Oscar telecast finally worth staying awake for, looked into the camera last Monday and said, "Didn't inhale?" to a great guffaw from the audience.
Clinton's suggestion that he smoked dope without inhaling made him look like either a fibber or a dork. Saying you smoked dope but didn't inhale is the equivalent of saying you drank beer but didn't swallow it.
I've been told that we're being particularly hard on Clinton this year, and I understand why some people are saying so. But they're missing the point. The point is that in some sense he's in the wrong place at the wrong time, running for president during a period of intense exploration of character issues.
Like the rest of us, he's still not sure where the land mines lie, so he's wound up dancing around some questions best served by standing pat.
There are still purists who contend that character is not the point, that we should look solely at where candidates stand on the issues. That's foolish.
We elect a whole person, not just a position paper on national health insurance or tax cuts.
If George Bush loses in November, it will be for many reasons, but one will be that he just didn't seem like a real guy, someone who understood sad songs, shrunken paychecks and macaroni meals.
Certainly the comely and charming Clinton, who promises to stick with us until the last dog dies, is running in part on his personality, and we've decided to explore it fully.
We're still working out which cul de sacs in the lives of candidates are dead ends and which teach us something important about the landscapes of their lives, which issues are character issues and which are peripheral ones. Sometimes we get it wrong. Ultimately the voters decide.
We assume that voters care about cheating, lying, law-breaking. But we still don't really have a handle on whether people think infidelity counts as cheating or lying.
And we have a pretty good idea that they're not much bothered by the breach of laws that accompanied smoking a joint. Character issues are fluid things, peculiar to their time.
It would be a ho-hum story today to uncover a candidate's short-lived first marriage when, just three decades ago, divorce was by way of disqualification. No one then talked much about sexual harassment; today it could torpedo a campaign.
Drug use has become ho-hum, too. The unwritten rule for public officials seems to be that they have to say they only did it once or twice and that they didn't enjoy it.
For all of us who lived in dorm rooms with Indian print bedspreads on the walls at around the same time they did, this seems not only foolish but shortsighted.
One of the things that was so surreal about Nancy Reagan, in her trim little Adolfo suits, cruising the country to tell kids to just say no was that she didn't have a clue to why so many of them were saying yes.
You could make an argument that those who have had a brush with drug use have some perspective on drug abuse.
Instead of insisting that they didn't like it, why not admit that part of the allure of drugs is that they've been known to make you feel temporarily terrific? That's why people wind up using them to excess, particularly if they have lousy lives.
In the long shadow of crack and alcohol abuse, smoking marijuana has come to seem pretty tame. And it's apparent that soon it will be an anachronistic footnote in discussions of the character of the candidate.
The drug issue has become insignificant as it has become unabashed. Short, sweet, without excuses or caveats: Just say yes.
Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.