George W.'s bandwagon was barreling along, but it has hit one of those potholes for which presidential races are celebrated, and it's going to be fun to see if George can keep the wheels on.

In presidential campaigns, it's often the little things that do the most damage. You can go from being a serious candidate -- raising serious money but being careful not to raise serious ideas -- to being a laughingstock in one round of late-night TV talk shows.

President Clinton, everyone's favorite reprobate, was the first presidential aspirant to come out of the '60s, a decade that turned American culture on its head faster than a laced sugar cube. Goodbye necking at the movies, cheap booze and slow dancing. Hello to serious sex, drugs and rock & roll. Sooner or later, it nicked a lot of people. It got to Bill Clinton until he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he admitted under the grueling questioning of a campaign that he had "experimented with marijuana." He said he didn't inhale, an assertion of wastefulness that caused real alarm in knowledgeable circles -- pot costs money. That howler made me think of people who smoke pot the first time, hold it in their lungs like you are supposed to, exhale with great dignity and then deliver themselves of this proclamation: "I don't know what the big deal is. I'm not feeling anything." Right. Want a brownie?

Bush has made a mistake that loses court cases. You open a line of questioning and you can't go back. Early on, he attempted to stave off the ghosts of youthful indiscretions by admitting that he was "young and irresponsible." He said he'd learned from his mistakes. That is so Republican.

It would be so much more refreshing to hear a '60s candidate speak the truth: "Yes, I had a great time in the '60s. I did my share of sex, drugs and rock & roll, I got busted in anti-war demonstrations, blew pot and did acid when I could get it. Then, I got out of grad school, got married, we started having kids, and the party was over. I grew up." End of story.

A candidate who would get the whole thing off his chest would have cornered the market on something money can't buy: credibility. Right now, the candidate who has the biggest share of that is the very straight arrow former Democratic senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley. Asked whether he was purposely being bland to differentiate himself from Clinton, he gave a priceless answer: "I assure you, I'm not suppressing my glitziness."

But Bush has handled questions about his youth with undisguised contempt for the American people. He's trying to gain absolution through a half-baked mea culpa that wouldn't fly in any well-run confessional. You can hear Father John right now: "Son, could you be a little more specific? Just what did you do?"

"Father, I fooled around with drugs."

"How many times?"

"A few."

"That's not going to do here, son. Let's get to the numbers. God doesn't go in for generalities."

Bush should have learned from Clinton: the press doesn't go for generalities either. I frankly don't care if he blew pot, snorted coke, or dropped acid 25 years ago, which is the time frame he dribbled out last week after months of stonewalling. It's sort of fun to speculate on what kind of head trip the son of George and Barbara Bush would have gone on. Rumors about George W. and drugs suggest that if he did fool around with them at some point, it was for what is known as recreational use. Which is to say, every so often in the company of friends. You know, people who may rat you out when you are famous.

Any candidate with a past lives in fear of someone lying in the weeds -- make that the weed. He will get questions until he lets the full story out and stops delivering tidbits that make headlines. You can see it now: "Gov. Slackjaw admits to being in house at same time as coke was." Two days later: "Gov. Slackjaw admits to being in same room as coke was." Three days later: "Gov. Slackjaw admits to seeing coke in house."

Bush is coming off as a weasel, which is something we've had enough of. Voters developed a keener sense of smell during the past several years and they are not going to be easily duped by another fishy story.

Bush has opened the character issue, and there are things about him that worry me far more than what illegal acts he may have committed before the age of 28. For example, he has said he became born-again at 40. How transforming an experience was this? And what does it mean about his positions on some of the most divisive issues facing the nation, such as abortion and school prayer and vouchers for private schools? Is he a religious fanatic, someone taking his political agenda from the religious right, or does he take religion in moderation -- doesn't inhale, as it were.

Texas, produced some of this country's most radical religious crackpots, and George W. Bush has had to deal with them as a political force. His father kowtowed to the religious right every time there was political profit in it. We don't know how much influence the religious crackpottery would have on George W., but I bet plenty. That $37 million he's raised came from somewhere. One of his top strategists is Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, which was a real moneymaker in his day.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), one of Bush's rivals for the GOP nomination, said George W. would be "beaten to death" by questions about drug use until he came clean. "If he didn't use cocaine, then say he didn't. If he did use it, then explain why he did, and that it was a terrible part of his life and show how he has overcome it."

That's precisely the strategy Hatch told Clinton to take as the Lewinsky mess spun out of control. It was good advice then, too.