I cannot have been the only resident of the metropolitan area to wake up Sunday morning and be amazed at the headlines in the paper: "Ginsburg Withdraws as Nominee to the Supreme Court," and under that, "Politicians Line Up to Admit or Deny Past Marijuana Use." I mean, come on.

Who cares?

Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), rapidly becoming one of the country's most famous 39-year-olds, confessed to blowing grass in college and Vietnam. He's been clean for 15 years. Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, 49, said he smoked it while he was a civil rights worker in the South in the 1960s, but he's been clean since then. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), 68, said he tried a few puffs "many years ago," didn't like it, and never tried it again. And Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), 44, said he had tried it 19 years ago at a party in New Orleans, which must have been some kind of party for him to remember it with such specificity. "It didn't have any effect on me," said Gingrich. "As a matter of fact, I never went back and revisited it." Sounds like it had more effect on him than he realized.

Babbitt and Gore are presidential contenders, and in the wake of the Ginsburg revelations they felt they had to lay bare the sorry secrets of their misspent youth (as befits the generational implications of this story, youth is the period of life that occurs before the age of 30). If everyone else is telling the truth, the Republicans don't have a single person running for the presidency who has tried pot and the Democrats have only two. And the American people don't know one single thing more of any significance about the candidates than they did on Friday morning.

The climate of the times, however, is such that minor transgressions are getting treatment previously reserved for high crimes. It is the logical outcome for an administration governed by rigidity, intemperence and hypocrisy that its unraveling is beginning to look like a Victorian farce.

This is an administration that has made war on drugs a national crusade, and like a great many crusades it has been adopted and ambushed by zealots who throw simplistic answers at complex problems. These are people who would willingly inflict urine tests on every federal employe, making humiliation a condition of government employment, instead of competence, and the right to privacy a memory.

At center stage we have a law-and-order attorney general, Edwin Meese III -- who is under criminal investigation -- playing a pivotal role in the selection of Supreme Court nominees. After the Bork fiasco, you might think that President Reagan would have taken him aside and asked him to sit out the next round. But that didn't happen. Again, Meese prevailed and instead of nominating a respectable, conservative judge who could get confirmed, the administration nominated a relatively unknown academic who fit Meese's requirements for a reliable ideologue. Unlike Bork, the only paper trail Ginsburg has consists of roll-your-owns.

President Reagan initially reacted to the Ginsburg revelations with the prediction that the American people would be "compassionate" and forgive the appeals court judge his "youthful error." Early polls showed that Reagan was right: The vast majority said his use of pot while an academic made no difference to them. But it did to some conservatives, and the next thing you know Education Secretary William J. Bennett, a point man for the hard-liners, in a call cleared with the president, urged Ginsburg to withdraw. So much for youthful error.

There were plenty of good reasons to wonder whether Ginsburg was the best person available to sit on the Supreme Court, but his occasional use of marijuana in a more tolerant era isn't one of them. Unfortunately, the law-and-order types have created a climate that is so unforgiving that a mistake in judgment can ruin a man's career. It is ironic that it is Ed Meese's constituency that is devoid of the compassion and wisdom that it takes to understand that a lot of splendid people did a lot of dumb, ill-advised things in their youth, and a lot of them have done so as adults -- that is, over 30. If we insist on barring them from the national dialogue -- and if we fall into the Victorian trap of setting up an absolutely hypocritical standard of conduct -- we're going to lose a lot of talent.

At the rate things are going, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) might have to give up his post as keeper of the State Department's morals. He's going to turn 85 in December, and it's almost a sure bet that a guy his age smoked corn silk when he was a tad in Edgefield, S.C.