Just the other day Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister to John, Robert and Teddy and daughter of Joe and the all-but-mythical Rose, wrote a letter to The Washington Post saying that her father did not have an affair with Gloria Swanson as it is alleged in a recently published book. The trouble with that is that person who wrote the book is in a position to know. She's Gloria Swanson.

Mrs. Shriver is undeterred. She calls the revelation (admission?) "warmed-over, 50-year-old gossip that accuses the dead and insults the living," and which "scarcely conforms to any definition of responsible journalism". What particularly bothers her, it seems, is Swanson's characterization of Rose Kennedy as either a saint or a fool. Mrs Shriver has half an answer. She was a saint for sure.

A letter like this has to strike a chord in each of us. Once you get past the celebrated names and the very nice writing, it echoes of nothing less than a schoolyard fight in which one kid yells something about someone else's mother. Nothing stings like the old your-mother-is-this or your-father-is-that-taunt. It is the oldest of insults and if there is a place in any of us where we remain always vulnerable it is the reputation of our parents or our kids. We can always take care of ourselves.

In fact, Mrs. Shriver's lament is just the latest one from the child or relative of a famous person. Earlier, we had a similar complaint from a child of the late David O. Selznick who resented and disputed the claim that the director of "Gone With The Wind" casted for that epic drama on his less than epic studio couch. A similar complaint was voiced by the grandchildren of the late Mamie Eisenhower, who said that her Dwight David was always her Dwight David, not withstanding the alleged confession of his wartime driver, a fetching lass names Kay Summersby.

If there is an underlying message to all these requests it can be summed up in the word "protect." Mrs. Shriver's letter and the protests of the others are requests to the media to respect the feelings of the women involved, to have the same consideration for them as their husbands did. It is not, on the face of it, an outrageous request. All it means to say is "be nice."

The off-the-cuff response is always, why not? But a moment's reflection would lead you to conclude that it would be impossible to comply. In the first place, to ask the media to cease publishing this twaddle, to turn up its nose at titillation, is like asking the cat to pass up catnip. It cannot, be done. These stories, and the books they are based on, are immensely readable, which is another way of saying profitable. Under capitalism, the latter is at least as important as the former.

But the real trouble with the request is that it would make the media a co-conspirator. We who know would say nothing. It blurs the distinction betweeen discretion and lying, but more than that it turns the media, the press, into "family" -- and Rose Kennedy's family at that. We would side with her, say that her good and her good alone certain information will not see the light of day. Never mind that Swanson has her own rights and the public theirs. We would be nice to Rose.

This is the sort of thing people ask of other people all the time. Time and time again, men (maybe women, too, but my experience is limited) make one another co-conspirators. We know what the wives don't know, which is to say that we know what their husbands are up to. This is an uncomfortable position to be in. You have to watch what you say. You have to make sure that you don't refer to events at which the wife was not present, but someone else was. A man who does this to another man, who draws him in and splashes a bit of the guilt on him, is doing his friend no favor. He is compromising him as surely as he is compromising himself.

For years, though, the press did that sort of thing. It knew things it did not publish and its failure to publish had nothing to do with journalistic standards -- what was news, what was truth, what the public had a right to know. It had to do, instead with protecting someone's reputation or someone else's feelings. It made the press a bit of co-conspirator. It had us winking and sneering when what we should have been doing was publishing.

At any rate, there is no need to turn people into statues, to make saints of men and women, to cleanse them of their blemishes and thus their humanity, to transform them for the sake of the living into something they were not. If they cared so much for the feelings of others, they would not have done what they did in the first place and it is not our job to substitute our sensibilities for theirs. Children have to accept their fathers for what they were. It is, ater all, what their mothers did.