It turns out that Bruce Caputo, former New York congressman and now a candidate for the Senate, was not what he said he was. He had not been drafted and he was not in the Army and he was not, as a consequence, a lieutenant. He was something else instead: a liar.

Now you would not know this from the reaction to the Caputo confession. When unmasked, Caputo said that he had sort of been in the Army. He had worked in the Pentagon as a civilian employe and that was more or less the military. And the job that he held was equivalent to that of a lieutenant so that, all things considered, you could understand why he said what he said.

And people did understand. Caputo is seeking the Senate nomination of the Republican, Conservative and Right to Life parties, and the executive director of the Conservative Party was the first to let him off the hook. He called it a "tempest in a teapot," while the spokesman for the Right to Life Party similarly shrugged her shoulders: "Our concern is with the unborn child," said Jane Tobin. As for the GOP, it has yet to be heard from.

Caputo on his own might not be worth considering (or reviling) but news of his fabricated history comes to us at about the same time we are wrestling with some similar situations. The New York Times tells us on page one that a story it printed in its magazine was totally made up by a free-lance writer it hired. And, closer to home, The Washington Post is still suffering from having published a fabricated story by Janet Cooke and then submitting it for a Pulitzer Prize--and winning.

About the same time, former Rep. Robert Bauman is on the comeback trail, seeking to regain the seat in Congress he lost after being arrested on a morals charge. Far from being the straight and proper conservative he proclaimed himself to be, Bauman said he was, in fact, an alcoholic with homosexual tendencies. That, he now says, is history, and he almost dares you to look back at the burning city he has left behind.

Caputo, Bauman, Cooke and the fellow for the Times, Christopher Jones, are a disparate group, but they do have things in common. In deed or in word, they lied and they all, except Jones, are already on the rehabilitation cum comeback trail. (Caputo, in fact, seems hardly to have paused before hitting that trail.)

It is not merely in their own minds that they think the public is forgiving. It is a fact they can almost count on. Whatever they have done gets wrapped in so many excuses and so much psychology that it almost never gets called for what it is: a lie. This may be Richard Nixon's everlasting contribution to American public life: If it's not indictable, it's not anything.

Gone is any public indignation about lying. It is seen as something else, either something not very important, or just another mistake--an error. It is like tactics gone wrong, a right turn instead of a left turn, maybe even something people are entitled to do. This is the thinking behind cheating in school and it is the thinking also behind cheating on taxes: the notion that since the system is unfair, it is fair to cheat it.

When it comes to Caputo, many people seem to agree. Rather than shrink away in mortification after having been exposed, he called a press conference, apologized for any misunderstanding and then blamed the whole mess on Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.), the man he would like to unseat.

Morality is the unmentioned word. You do what you have to do. Sometimes you tell the truth and sometimes you lie. They are both rungs on the ladder. Sometimes you use one and sometimes you use the other.

The thing about Caputo is that he epitomizes the politician who wants only to win. He is empty of either commitment or political philosophy. He was once a Republican liberal, something of an ethical watchdog, actually, who has since put his finger to the wind and become an archconservative. He is running for the sake of running, wanting political office so he can then run for another.

These are the hollow people of our times. They tell the world what they think it wants to hear, get caught, stumble and then press on. Caputo is the embodiment of all that. He remains in the race, tolerated by people who value some things higher than truth. Lucky for them, so does he.