I'm afraid my obsession with the Ritual of Wiggle -- the stunts politicians pull to "wiggle" out of trouble after they're caught being bad -- caused me to be too hard on Gary Hart and Joe Biden. "Those two didn't give it the good old college try," I carped, loudly, after their weak- kneed exits. That was unfair. I now see that Ritual of Wiggle tactics can't work as well for presidential candidates as they do for, say, ordinary congressional hacks. Would-be presidents play on a nationally televised stage, and the standard wiggle procedures -- the shameless flip-flops, the bold denials of the truth -- work best when recounted in local newspapers, where they can be consumed at breakfast by voters who don't have time to sit around saying, "Whaaaat?" Under stricter scrutiny, all a blown-up presidential hopeful can do is give a few grim-yet- hilarious "explanations" and make a speedy return to his old job, before it occurs to someone: Hey, he should be booted out of that, too. By these standards, Hart and Biden did fine.

Still, the whole thing made me wonder: How are those hack congressmen doing? To answer this, I reviewed the Ritual of Wiggle steps, first outlined years ago in The Washington Monthly, and then took a close look at the in-progress wiggle of New York Rep. Mario Biaggi. My conclusion: If Biaggi is representative, congressmen are wiggling along . . . okay, but they'd be well advised to study the more stylish masters of the past.

For those who haven't followed him, Biaggi has been clattering toward the rock pile on two separate tracks. In March, he and former Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade Esposito were indicted on federal charges of bribery, fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The feds said Esposito paid for two vacations taken by Biaggi and a not-his-wife female friend. In exchange, Biaggi allegedly used his influence to help obtain government contracts for the Coastal Dry Dock and Repair Corp., a client of Esposito's insurance company. Next, in June, Biaggi was indicted in the Wedtech scandal. If the maximum penalties for all counts in both cases were added together, Biaggi's total potential slammo time would have come to 213 years -- but he won't get that. The Wedtech trial is still pending, but in the Coastal case, decided in September, a very understanding jury convicted Biaggi of obstruction and accepting an "illegal gratuity" but acquitted him of bribery and conspiracy. Sentence: 2 1/2 years, stayed pending appeal. A buoyant Biaggi said of the verdict: "The jury convicted me of tipping. I'm not a waiter, I'm a congressman, and I will continue to be a congressman . . . This is just part of the fight!" If he analyzes the game films from his Wiggle No. 1 and learns from his mistakes, he may be right. Let's see.

Step 1. Confess to what is known -- and cry. Congressman X knows he's to be indicted on Day D. Two days before D, X calls a press conference and "confesses" to what's coming out anyway, and folks back home applaud his forthrightness. The modern master of this gambit was Mississippi Rep. Jon Hinson. In 1980, a few days before the story came out, he admitted, in quavering tones, to having been "accused of committing" an obscene act in Arlington in 1976. (He'd exposed himself to an undercover cop at the Iwo Jima Memorial.) Hinson was reelected and served with distinction until arrested in the Longworth House Office Building on a charge of attempted sodomy.

Biaggi flubbed Step 1. Prior to the Coastal indictment, he was lamely insisting that he'd paid for the vacations himself. When he ultimately had to do a 180, he just looked silly.

Step 2. If at all possible, give the money back. If an apprehended bank robber holds his bag of cash at arm's length and says, "Take it, and -- heh heh -- let's just forget the whole thing," the police laugh. Traditionally, though, the House and Senate ethics committees have been more understanding. Last year, for example, the House committee found that Rep. Dan Daniel had improperly accepted 68 free airplane rides from Beech Aircraft, but recommended "no penalty" after he repaid the company.

For Biaggi, unfortunately, this step isn't practical. In the 52-count Wedtech case, he's accused of extorting $3.6 million in stock by threatening to withdraw his influence -- too much moolah to return in one lump. In the Coastal case, the whole issue is moot because, after finally admitting that Esposito paid his vacation tab, Biaggi loudly insisted there was nothing improper about the arrangement.

Step 3. Hold a legal-defense fundraiser. Biaggi ignored this one the first time around, but he should reconsider it as a Wedtech option. Legal fees are expensive! Especially when umpteen appeals are factored in. Thus, a few trend setters have hit on the idea of holding a legal-defense fundraiser packed with loyal followers who are happy to shell out for their besieged man. There are two basic styles: 1) Cheesy and 2) Classy. Classy works better. In 1978, Rep. "Dapper" Dan Flood, then up to his Dali mustache in bribery charges, held a reception at the Treadway Motor Inn near Wilkes-Barre, Pa. For $10, contributors got two drinks and a performance by Lefty and the Polka Chaps. Sixty-one people showed. In contrast, Rep. Harold Ford -- currently up on fraud charges -- held a much nicer April rally in Memphis and netted $68 K.

Step 4. Use the "stranger-in-paradise" routine: You can't help it if good-hearted friends shower you with gifts. Bingo! Here's where Biaggi shines. The key to his defense in the Coastal case was to prove that the "donated" vacations were a loving act of friendship, not influence buying. This was tough, because the FBI had taped phone conversations that indicated otherwise. In one, Esposito is heard telling a third party that the Biaggi vacations were "good money invested." In another, taped in August, Biaggi seems to be doing some heavy coaching. Biaggi: "You didn't give it to me because I'm a member, member of Congress." Esposito: "Nah. Never, no bull. No way." B: "Have you ever done . . . anything for me?" E: "Have I ever done anything for you?" B: "I told them {the FBI} 'no' . . ." E: "That's right." B: "And that's the way we're gonna keep it."

That, uh, didn't help his obstruction defense. Still, the jury bought it when Biaggi's lawyer argued that it would be absurd to think that Biaggi, whose net worth was said to be $2 million, would risk his career for two free vacations.

Hmm. Does this seem illogical? As a layman, you need to remember that "logic" isn't always part of the wiggle equation. Remember Rep. Ozzie Myers, who testified at his Abscam trial that he didn't intend to "do anything" in exchange for the bribe he took. "It seemed like a chance to pick up some easy money," he yawned. "It seemed like a fairy tale." Remember Sen. Harrison Williams. At his Abscam trial, he said he thought his Arab was just a dopey, lonely foreigner who tried to give away money to make friends.

Remember, toss your hat up, and applaud. ::

Next: Wedtech, and advanced wiggle steps 5 through 8!