BOSTON -- Ever since Douglas Ginsburg disappeared in a puff of smoke, there have been a great many questions about the political aftereffects of ''youthful indiscretions'' and ''youthful transgressions.'' Many want to know whether anyone in public life is going to be forgiven the past. Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations for misbehavior?
Even William Bennett, the secretary of education, who made the fateful telephone call to Ginsburg, has begun to waffle on the subject. The man who nearly joined the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in college now says: ''Youthful indiscretions should not be a bar to public office and public trust. The question is when, what were the circumstances, what were your responsibilities.''
But statements such as this only make the situation fuzzier. My own ear is now buzzing with anxious demands for much clearer guidelines on ''indiscretions and transgressions.''
These concerns, needless to say, come from college students with an interest in pursuing public life. Having grown up during the ''just say no'' era, most of these students have barely begun to transgress. They want desperately to know how much time they have before the window of opportunity is forever closed to them.
I personally think they have the right to such crucial information. So in the spirit of full disclosure, I have used the experience of 1987 to draw a preliminary list of youthful "I's and T's" and the likely costs. Costs vary depending on whether you look to a conservative or a liberal future.
What follows is Goodman's Statute of Limitations.
1) On the subject of drugs:
The rule for conservative youth is that you can survive revelations of a toke of marijuana only if you were still an undergraduate. Allowances will be made if you were at college on the East or West Coast. But it is best if, like Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, you say "it didn't have any effect on me." (Warning: Don't try that with a liberal constituency.)
Liberals will be forgiven for occasional pot smoking all the way through graduate school or through their twenties, whichever ends first. It is, however, necessary to stop when you become a parent. (Warning: Under no condition should you admit that you quit smoking marijuana because you were afraid of being caught by the children.)
2) On the subject of sex:
Here, conservatives get a break. It is permissible now, as Pat Robertson proved, to have sex (or sow wild oats) as long as it is before marriage. But you must show your conversion by coming out strongly for teen-age chastity, and against abortion and birth control, once you are a candidate.
Liberals are allowed to have premarital sex also, but it must be "responsible,'' ''nonex-ploitative" and in the context of a caring relationship with someone who won't rat on you later for being an insensitive lover. Liberals are permitted sex between marriages under the same conditions. Once married, however, a liberal male is not allowed to wander unless he and his wife have a public agreement. (This will only work in California.) Married women? Don't even fantasize.
3) On the matter of plagiarism:
Liberals, who put much faith in literature and read footnotes, take this very, very seriously. It's okay only if you do it in a required freshman paper immediately after your father's funeral.
Conservatives don't feel as strongly about this. But they prefer to plagiarize the scriptures. After all, as Bennett himself semiquoted: ''Doesn't the Bible itself say we all sin? St. Paul, seven times a day? We're sinners.''
There are other indiscretions and transgressions, youthful and otherwise, that didn't make this list. Some sins may even be useful in your public career. Sloth may get you to the White House. Alcoholism, if we are to believe Michael Deaver, may turn into a handy defense against perjury, even in midlife.
More to the point, a certain amount of youthful misbehavior -- getting carded at the college beer hall, for instance -- may work to your advantage in later life. It allows you to make a confession and be praised for your honesty. This works best if you have become too uptight (liberal or conservative).
Above all else, remember that whatever you do now you must deeply and sincerely and publicly regret later. If this doesn't appeal to you, skip politics altogether. Try something else. Try writing about politics. Being a journalist means never having to say you're sorry.