BOSTON -- Ever since a team of reporters staked out Gary Hart's home, narrowing the parameters of privacy for a presidential candidate, many have asked whether the press went too far. If not, then where exactly was ''too far''? Were we headed in its direction? What would it look like when we got there?
Well, I am here to report that I have seen ''too far.'' It doesn't look like the National Enquirer photo of Donna Rice on Gary Hart's lap. It looks like a carefully phrased letter from The New York Times, the ''good, gray'' Times.
The Times formally asked every presidential candidate for information. ''This is not the type of information we routinely request preparing profiles,'' wrote The Times' Washington editor, Craig Whitney. ''However, the presidency is a unique office and presidential candidates are inevitably, and we believe rightly, asked to provide the public with extensive information about themselves.''
The Times' letter went on to ask for the routine stuff: school transcripts, employment records, military history, income-tax returns. The usual. It went further to lazily ask the candidates to help with their footwork: deliver the names of close friends and associates, advisers and fund-raisers.
But down in the list was a request for a ''waiver of privacy rights,'' which would allow the paper to get any scrap of information -- true or false -- lurking in the unevaluated investigative files prepared by the FBI or other law-enforcement agencies. And just a bit farther down was an open-ended request for ''medical records indicating treatment for mental or physical disabilities and permission to discuss medical history with your physicians.''
This is what ''too far'' looks like.
A reporter -- for that matter any citizen -- has the right to question a candidate about anything. I was not the only one who squirmed when The Post's Paul Taylor asked Hart: ''Have you every committed adultery?'' But Taylor had the right to ask and Hart the right to say: ''I do not have to answer that question.'' We can ask a candidate whether he's been treated for mental or physical illness. We can pursue a lead that goes as far as Thomas Eagleton's shock treatments.
But that's a far cry from asking every candidate to turn over medical records that range from the podiatrist to the psychiatrist. It's a far cry from asking him to cede the confidential relationship between patient and physician.
Howard Simons, curator of the Nieman Foundation and former managing editor of The Post, has, he says, ''always had the view that presidential candidates have no private life at all. None. Zero.'' Yet even he balked at this one: ''What they are doing is a fishing expedition. Just take all your records from history and give them to us. Just give me a free license to fish in your pond. They're asking him to waive his rights so that a doctor will break the pledge of confidentiality. Better they should ask about adultery.''
A former journalist in the candidate pack, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, is also troubled by the request: ''Let's say somebody had a social disease. I'm not at all sure that the American public is entitled to know that.'' Simon hastened to add that he's never had a social disease and his need to say that illustrates the problem. Anybody who isn't open for fishing can be accused of ''having something to hide.''
Even in an era when we know everything about the condition of the president's colon, does a candidate have to turn over the Compleat History of hemorrhoids and herpes? The veritable Times might answer -- if Craig Whitney had chosen to return my phone calls -- that it would be ever so discreet. It would responsibly separate the wheat from the chaff or the relevant from the irrelevant.
But is this how the balance has shifted? Is the candidate now supposed to simply turn over the raw data of his entire life, waiving his rights along the way? Does the press now completely determine what should be revealed and what protected? While asking that a candidate deliver the last vestiges of privacy, The Times arrogantly felt no obligation to disclose its own guidelines, to say how it would use what it learned. The letter simply closed with the line: ''We would appreciate receiving all this material as soon as possible.''
In the midst of the Gary Hart story, The Times' Bill Safire worried that newshounds were going to ask questions about things such as impotence. Paul Taylor responded indignantly, ''Don't they think that political reporters know better?'' Now it appears the Times reporters won't have to ask such embarrassing questions. They can read all about it in the medical records.
I may not be able to define perfectly ''the invasion of privacy'' in presidential politics. But I know it when I see it. This is it.