Newspaper columnists can get away with a lot.

They can nag, nitpick and criticize--with the benefit of hindsight--people who actually do things. It's a wonderful life.

Long-suffering readers will take a lot, including bad news. But some subjects are dynamite.

I refer, of course, to Smokey Bear.

Columnists can knock Richard M. Nixon, laugh at Jimmy Carter or heap scorn on Warren G. Harding. But don't mess with old Smokey. Now, they tell me.

The Aug. 10 Federal Diary quoted from a letter writer in Ashburn. He noted that this month marked the 55th birthday of the famed bear, who became a resident of the National Zoo. He asked about Smokey's retirement package. In a follow-up item Aug. 13, we noted that Smokey is a card-carrying member of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.

It seemed a harmless filler item.

Wrong!

The cult of Smokey struck back. With a vengeance.

Here are some of the many reader comments:

John Humbert wrote: "Really liked the bit regarding Smokey T. Bear.

"You mentioned the original Smokey, so I know you are aware that he died on the job, prior to collecting any retirement benefits.

"Although disabled in a fire, and found in the vicinity of a forest fire on federal lands, there were no eyewitnesses that could confirm Smokey's claim that he was injured in a federal wildfire. Therefore, there was never any proof that the fire he was found in caused his injuries. By the time he passed away, he had been pauperized by medical costs. It was not easy for him to find a clinic that would provide care in exchange for the little Purina Bear Chow he was able to set aside.

"The new Smokey is soon to be replaced by an outsourced animal, in a money-saving move. Rumor has it that as a concession to the continued urbanization of the nation, a rat will be Smokey's replacement. Smokey the Rat will be the new Title II ensign bearer for the U.S. Forest Service, as soon as attempts to train him to put out fires (rather than start them) are successful."

Vicki Cohen pointed out: "The whole issue of retirement for Smokey Bear is a moot discussion. Smokey was cared for at the National Zoo until his death; so he doesn't need any retirement benefits. On the other hand, if he had any dependents, which I don't think he did, they might be entitled to survivors' benefits."

John R. Obst raised issues of nature, reinvention and downsizing in his letter. He said:

"I hate to disillusion you, but Smokey isn't thinking about retirement: SMOKEY IS DEAD! Bears don't live to be 55. The Forest Service and the Agriculture Department have not leveled with the public, and these agencies continue to propagate the lie that Smokey Bear is alive and well. Numerous impostor 'Smokey Bears' have been enlisted in a conspiracy to make people believe the opposite. Besides, even if Smokey were alive, he wouldn't have made it to retirement anyway: they would have downsized his hairy-you-know-what a loooong time ago!"

And NARFE President Frank G. Atwater pointed out that NARFE's membership is higher than reported in the Aug. 13 column. He said NARFE now has about 425,000 human members, plus Smokey, whose dues have been waived.

Why do I have the feeling this discussion isn't over.

Science Fellowships

The Commerce Department's highly regarded ComSci Fellowship (science and technology) program is accepting applications through Sept. 1. Fellowships are open to workers government-wide who are at Grade 13 or above. It combines an intensive educational program with on-the-job training. For details, call Cynthia Lynn at 202-482-8103.

Long-Term Care

Congress and the White House are working up a long-term care insurance program--at group rates--for members of the federal family. It will cover active and retired federal workers and military personnel and selected family members, such as parents and parents-in-law. But a compromise hasn't been reached over such issues as how many plans or options will be offered. Once that is settled, legislation has to clear Congress and be signed into law by the president. All that will take time.

Meantime, many federal workers and retirees wonder if they should sign up for individual long-term care insurance to cover them until the government program is effective. Some experts say long-term care insurance is a waste of money for people younger than 55. Others say everybody needs it.

At 9 a.m. tomorrow on WUST radio (1120 AM), long-term care insurance expert and advocate Arthur Stein will discuss the factors people should consider before buying coverage and how to pick the best plan for them.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com