Do Americans really want open, honest politicians? Maybe not.

Take George W. Bush, who on Wednesday excoriated the media for continuing to insist he admit whether he ever used cocaine and who is supported by some Americans who resent the press's prying. Or Bob Dole, who spent several days in Iowa stumping for his wife before last week's Republican straw poll, ostensibly proving his enthusiasm for Elizabeth Dole's candidacy despite his honestly ambivalent statements about it.

Consider Hillary Clinton, whose presumably frank admissions about her views on her husband's infidelities were greeted with jeers.

Perhaps the only truth we really want is the truth we want to hear.

Yesterday, Bush admitted only that he did not use illegal drugs after 1974. An absurd non-denial. Yet one couple I know appreciates Bush's ridiculous reticence.

The couple have a teenager with a drug problem. Experts advised them not to tell their kids that they once used drugs because it would make their "just say no" stance seem hypocritical. Admitting past usage also implies that drug-taking is no biggie: "Mom and Dad did it, and they turned out okay!"

If Bush becomes president, my friends surmise, he'll be the nation's father figure. Would confessing drug use be worth the message it could convey?

Truth-telling certainly got Bob Dole in hot water, though his dutiful Iowa campaigning had the desired cooling effect: Few now speculate whether candidate Elizabeth Dole has a spouse problem.

The former Red Cross president's perceived husband problem was never as serious as that of presumed candidate Hillary Clinton. Despite Bob Dole's apparently successful use of Viagra, nobody is accusing the ex-senator of being a player.

The problem was Bob Dole's seeming discomfiture with Elizabeth Dole being one--a presidential player, a serious candidate for the office for which he ran and lost three times, most recently in 1996.

For now, Bob Dole has vacated the "family woodshed" his wife joked that he was in after he told the New York Times that he was unsure of her prospects and might even write a check for one of her rivals, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But I understood his apparent unease at the prospect of being first spouse and why he wasn't campaigning for his wife with quite the same gusto with which she stumped for him.

I'm a wife. Married people know that complexity and resentment simmer in the best marital relationships. And increasingly, politics seems to be less a matter of governance than of relationship theater--of well-groomed characters playing out personal dramas on the most public stage.

In this arena, honesty can get you crushed.

Take Hillary Clinton, a favorite political theater player, whose husband showed how crushing dishonesty can be. Does anyone believe that her near-certain U.S. Senate run is about what's best for New York? Even her fans know the campaign is about the first lady being all she would like to be: Hillary Rodham Clinton, senator and separate entity, better known for her contributions as an elected official than for her grace during scandal.

But she'll never admit it. When Hillary did reveal her feeling that Bill's infidelities are linked to his upbringing--a rationale no sillier than many people's excuses for their roving spouses--folks went ballistic.

Some were similarly contemptuous of Bob Dole's merely mild support of Elizabeth Dole's candidacy. My first reaction: How dare this campaign veteran, who was supported in his political endeavors by his attractive, ambitious partner, not reciprocate?

Then the spouse in me kicked in. What if my husband had pursued, and been rejected for, a job he'd coveted for decades, which he'd spent a huge amount of time and energy seeking--only to be publicly and painfully kicked to the curb?

Would I pursue the same admittedly attractive, even historic, job just three years later? Not if he wasn't behind me 100 percent.

Why wouldn't Bob Dole feel the jumble of pride and pain that his words reflected? "I just told the truth," he groused after the offending interview. "I don't think that's against the law."

Yes it is, on the stage on which the Dole drama is being acted out. There, a thrice-rejected husband shouldn't acknowledge his mixed feelings. He mustn't reveal his unease over his wife's having as voracious an appetite for public office as anyone else--including him--who ever campaigned.

Now, all is as it should be: Bush remains essentially mum; Hillary Clinton has returned to the silence that made her popular; Bob Dole seems as happy in the role of glowingly supportive ex-candidate as his wife does in that of hotshot presidential player.

Sometimes, as another actor--Jack Nicholson--famously suggested: We can't handle the truth. It's no wonder that in political theater, the play-acting is the thing.