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Overreacting to scandals - the American way

`HOW many times can a nation lose its innocence?'' Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. asks with noticeable impatience in his latest collection of essays, ``The Cycles of American History.'' Beset by cries of scandal from the White House to Wall Street, a reader must echo Schlesinger's question - and his impatience: How many times?

The old hounds of Watergate, led by Bob Woodward, are sniffing all the trails that lead to the White House basement, and maybe the Oval Office.

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You want tapes? Ivan Boesky will give you tapes.

Meantime, across the country, soiled little sub-plots seem to be turning up in local headlines with depressing regularity - New York's parking meter scam and Boston's tow-truck racket, to name just two.

And in case somebody protests that this is public life, somebody else will pull out a few nasty statistics about private life - like the spread of cocaine through the middle class (22 million Americans are said to have tried it) or a new record in teen-age pregnancy (up to an annual rate of 11 percent among 15-to-19-year-old girls).

The timing could not be worse. Doesn't anybody realize this is the season, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that we reserve to talk about Values? - a theme we have been sounding practically year-round during the '80s.

Now, as no rock goes unturned - and few stones go uncast - what can the rest of us do but arrange our faces in that look of shocked innocence Schlesinger cannot abide? He goes on to grumble: ``No nation founded on invasion, conquest, and slaughter was innocent. No people who systematically enslaved black men and killed red men were innocent. No state established by revolution and thereafter rent by civil war was innocent.''

Well, maybe that's a bit one-sided. But maybe also we need a stern shake to break this habit of widening our blue eyes and acting as if, gee, what's the world coming to when being American does not automatically signify a pure and snow-white heart?

Just possibly it's this pretension to innocence that gets us from one embarrassment to the next with out learning what needs to be learned to avoid the repetition.

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Like a formula Laurel and Hardy comedy, we turn in Gordon Liddy for Oliver North and vary the standard cry: ``A fine mess you've got us in now, Ollie!''

One more Something-gate! One more rollercoaster ride from expos'e to self-righteousness. Can there be no stops somewhere in between?

American innocence, rather than being our proudest virtue, can be positively dangerous. The real innocents are, in fact, the Liddys and the Norths (and their puppet-masters) - the very people who think of themselves as realists as they play out their naive games as loose cannons.

It is against the impulses of these innocents that the Founding Fathers designed their system of checks and balances. The Constitution stands as a document written by idealistic but skeptical men who know that good intentions - presumptions of innocence - are never enough.

And what do we do in the end when our hands are caught in the cookie jar, and not only the cookies crumble but the jar threatens to crack? A lot of us are inclined to conclude: ``There's something especially decent - yes, innocent - about the way Americans admit their loss of innocence.''

So we're right back with one more turn of moral posturing.

We talk less about what we did than how we handled it. Were the damage-control speeches good?

Nowadays, in fact, we worry more about loss of ``credibility'' than loss of ``innocence.''

We should not care so much about our reputation as about knowing the difference between right and wrong because, among other things, this is a measure of practical effectiveness.

A long while ago, Alexander Hamilton asked the Schlesinger question: ``Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabiitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?''

Two centuries later, is it not yet time?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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