How sweetly ironic it is that in political Washington, wherecharacter counts for approximately as much as taste does in Hollywood, "character" is now the fashion of the day. Gary Hart has departed the presidential wars, his "character" called into question; Joseph Biden teeters on the edge of elimination, his "character" now perhaps seen as insufficient; and Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court hangs in the balance, his "character" the hidden issue behind the criticism of vacillation and inconsistency in his legal views.

Washington has discovered "char- acter" much as Sutter discovered gold: Eureka! From every nook and cranny the prospectors now emerge, each determined to stake his or her claim on the politically vendible product called "character." But what is most apparent is that none of them has the foggiest idea what character actually is, which is why it is necessary to put the word in quota- tion marks when using it as political Washington does. For what Washing- ton regards as "character" is some- thing quite different from character as it is commonly understood.

Like "values," "character" has become a buzzword. Ostensibly it stands for honor, conviction and probity, the qualities commonly associated with strength of character, but in actuality it means playing by the rules within the boundaries of the political field. A dalliance now and then is all right -- without dalliance, Washington would be at a loss for dinner conversation -- but it must be discreet and tasteful; Gary Hart's was neither, hence his dismissal. Orator- ical plagiarism is all right, too -- speech writing is not, after all, the most original or elevated of arts -- but getting caught at it is not; Biden was nailed, hence his present discomfort.

It is no oversimplification to say that in Washington, and wherever else two or more politicians may gather, he who does not get caught has "character" and he who gets caught has none. Politics may be a rather amoral business, but it is also a practical one, and politicians are more comfortable dealing with what one can get away with than with the moral import of one's actions. Hart's well-earned reputation as a Lothario probably won him more envy than disrepute in the political community so long as he kept his amours reason- ably private; but Donna Rice was his Fanne Foxe and Monkey Business was his Tidal Basin -- it was all too blatant and too public, and like Wilbur Mills, Hart had to pay the piper.

But even when Washington finds it necessary to go off on a righteous toot, as it did with Hart and seems eager to do with Biden, it is far less concerned with the "character" of the individual involved than with the political dimensions of his actions. With Hart and Biden alike, the word that recurred over and again was "contain": Could disclosures about their behavior be "contained," or would they go out of control and alter the candidates' political prospects? The talk about "character" was strictly for public consumption; "containment," so far as political Washington is concerned, was the real issue.

This is not to say that the political community never is genuinely concerned about the "character" of public figures, only that its definition of the term is shaped not by considerations of rectitude or personality but by the prevailing political wisdom. Thus, for example, Washington's indignation over Biden's penchant for plagiarism is exceeded only by its indifference to his artificial hair and his tendency to refer to himself in public discourse in the third person. To the outside observer, Biden's inability to accept his incipient baldness might seem a sign of callowness and his talk about "Joe Biden" a sign of insuperable arrogance, but manufactured appear- ances and bloated egos are so com- mon in Washington that no one took notice -- even though such attributes surely do not speak well for the char- acter of those inflicted with them.

With unerring accuracy, Washington fixes its indignation on the obvious and overlooks what is genuinely revealing. Egged on by a press blissed out on sensation, it works itself into a frenzy over the passing scandal of womanizing or plagiarism yet conveniently ignores the subtler signs suggesting, perhaps, that one official's arrogance masks a lack of self-confidence, or that another's inflated rhetoric disguises an undisciplined mind. This is not to say that womanizing and plagiarism are unrevealing or unimportant -- quite the contrary -- but that there were plenty of other warning signs before these were discovered, signs that Washington either failed to recognize or chose to overlook.

It may be true, to be sure, that a realistic view demands that character be defined somewhat differently within the political context than it is elsewhere. Politics is indeed the art of the possible, a reality that cannot but affect moral or personal judgments about those who participate in it. But if we accept that proposition, that leaves still unresolved the question of definition: Within the political context what can truly be called character, devoid of quotation marks?

Herewith a modest suggestion: A politician of character is one whose convictions are genuine rather than tailored to convenience, whose commitment to public service is greater than his avarice, whose word can be taken more or less at face value, whose probity is beyond dispute, and whose personal behavior falls within socially acceptable boundaries. That may be a bit wordy for Webster, but it is an effort to accommodate idealism to reality. It is too much, for example, to expect that our politicians always tell us the truth; in fact it may not always be in our best interests for them to do so. It is too much, as well, for us to expect them to maintain personal standards that we ourselves do not; a society with a higher tolerance for adultery than it may care to admit should not be overly judgmental about a politician who strays from time to time in an environment that offers considerable temptation.

Thus Franklin Roosevelt, whose liaisons with Lucy Mercer seem to have been relatively innocent and inconsequential, satisfies on all counts the definition of political character; so too does Dwight Eisenhower, whose mysterious relationship with Kay Summersby seems to have been similarly innocuous. But John Kennedy's obsessive philandering and his irresponsible affair with Judith Campbell Exner disqualify him, as does Warren Harding's cozy relationship with the architects of Teapot Dome.

What it all boils down to is a question of honesty: Is a politician honest with his constituents and, even more important, with himself? This may seem a fairly basic standard by which to measure political charac- ter, but it is better than no standard at all, which is what political Washing- ton now offers us. As to whether the current aspirants for the presidency meet this definition, that is a judg- ment each voter must draw from the evidence; but the evidence, on the whole, is not especially encouraging