"IT CERTAINLY does not affect his qualifications to sit on the court today," said Attorney General Edwin Meese III, about Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg's pot-smoking. That was Thursday.

Two days earlier, in a different era, Meese had another view. "Avoiding that first-time use is critical if we are to create a drug-free society," he said in Omaha. "There are too many people who want those artificial shortcuts to superficial happiness . . . . We have to change public attitudes and public behavior . . . . This is a fight we can't afford to lose."

The Ginsburg affair is a great moment of truth for the conservative movement. Conservatives cannot defend Ginsburg, or many other young intellectuals with whom they have made common cause, without abandonning their Kulturkampf against the 1960's, the underpinning of much of their political rationale.

As the Ginsburg affair demonstrates, few members of thethe generation now acceding to power made the passage through the 1960s without being touched by the counterculture. President Reagan said as much in standing by his 41 year-old candidate: "I'm sure there were a great many people who did that, at that particular period.'' (About one-third of those now between the ages of 31 and 44 admit to having used drugs, according to a Washington Post poll. The true number may be considerably higher.)

Do Meese's and Reagan's apologies for Ginsburg mean that we will hear no more attacks on how liberals are to blame for the culture of the 1960s and liberalism? Of course not. But after the Ginsburg affair, such pronouncements will have a different resonance. Qualifications will be needed -- as they have been for Ginsburg. For his sake, the apostles of the Right have had to make an enormous ideological concession.

The Reagan administration did not, of course, anticipate this result. In insisting upon the selection of the youthful Ginsburg, Meese thought he was getting Robert Bork plus 20 more years of useful service. They overlooked the obvious: That as someone who was changed by the 1960s, Douglas Ginsburg is the man the Reaganites warned us against. And in a way that might be anathema to the Reaganites, Ginsburg has been a loyal follower of Reagan's own fun-loving creed.

Meese selected someone for Reagan who reduced environmental issues to cost-benefit analysis, who believed that in matters of antitrust bigger was usually better, that in a self-regulating economy government had no rightful place -- all that, but no more. It was as though Ginsburg were an abstraction, a point of view rather than a person, who existed culturally in a bubble.

What Meese didn't anticipate was that Ginsburg's libertarian impulses in matters economic showed up in the way he had conducted his personal life as well. Ginsburg could not be discouraged from his self-indulgence, even (according to a fellow Harvard law professor) after he was warned at a party that in smoking marijuana he was breaking the law. Thus, through the three-piece suited figure of Douglas Ginsburg, the Yippies are finally having their revenge. Steal this court!

The media's fascination with Douglas Ginsburg's marijuana use is not completely absurd. After all, thousands probably have been sentenced to jail for what Ginsburg has done. And the drug issue has inflamed American politics for three decades.

Meese himself rose to early prominence as the Alameda County district attorney battling the pot-smokers of Berkeley in the 1960s. And Ronald Reagan's election as governor of California in 1966 was partly made possible by the reaction against the youth culture.

In the late 1970s, while he was gearing up to run for president and Ginsburg was still smoking dope, Reagan warned against "pot, grass, weed -- whatever you want to call it." Those who smoked were going to "wreck the bodies and minds they are going to have to live with the rest of their lives . . . . Now, for those hard-to-sell souls who liken a joint to a martini, the difference is our body eliminates the martini in 24 hours . . . . And it {marijuana} lowers the male hormone and sperm count in men which, if I may be blunt, leads to sterility."

Such decadence, or impotence, was equated with liberalism, which was said to be the province of an elite out of touch with the conservative majority. Recreational drugs were more than a cultural accoutrement; they were a political statement.

By the 1980s, the counterculture had long faded. It had been succeeded by the Me Generation, through which ran the same thread -- the impulse to do your own thing. In academia, the theory of unrestrained individualism gained new currency under the banner of libertarianism. Its major outpost was the University of Chicago Law School, where Ginsburg had been trained in its strictures. He acted upon his libertarian principles as both entrepreneur and pot smoker.

Those who championed Ginsburg before the revelation, and who now dismiss his drug use as "youthful error," as Reagan put it, have missed the deep logic of connection between the economic free-for-all Ginsburg advocates and his dope smoking. Now that Ginsburg has disgraced the conservatives' critique of the 1960s, they must face a hard choice between their cultural reaction and political reality.

This choice goes beyond creating a special dispensation for marijuana use by political appointees. In the short-run, conservatives can no longer blame everything on the 1960s and have Ginsburg, too. In the long-run, if they cannot soften the hard edge of their cultural conservatism, they may cut themselves off from much of the generation whose formative period was that decade. For the right this is an extremely difficult choice, calling into question more than their past rhetoric; it further loosens the alignment between economic conservatism and the religious right.

On behalf of conservatism and Douglas Ginsburg, Edwin Meese and Ronald Reagan have extended diplomatic recognition to the 1960s. It's an act that the Yippies would have appreciated.

Sidney Blumenthal is a Washington Post staff writer.