Indictment, the threat of impeachment, a recall election: Arizona's Republican governor, Evan Mecham, hit the jackpot. I figure he therefore may be accounted the luckiest man in America. For Gov. Mecham is in a position to become rich and famous and, if he is only a little forbearing and plays his hand right, also perhaps a widely beloved figure in the land, a boffo regular on all the talk shows ("And now please welcome the irrepressible bad boy of American politics and author of the best seller 'I Don't Mince Words,' Ev Mecham . . .") Never mind that the man has a truly brutish sensibility and a scurrilous tongue. He has the essential ingredient of success in American public life these days: he has done something unforgivable.

I don't know how long our social critics and other assorted national nags are going to go on complaining that America's football-skewed value system puts a premium on winning at the expense of all else, etc. But that train not only left the station, it got derailed at least a dozen years ago. Losing, failing, cheating, trimming, blowing it -- really bombing -- and, importantly, then getting caught have long since displaced success as the principal route to wealth and happiness in this country.

I know you are about to object not just that this is pretty cynical fare but also that the current, perhaps terminal sag in the fortunes of Gary Hart disproves the theory. But I would argue that Hart was doing just fine by the theory and was actually in a way to prove it until he got impatient and tried to hurry things along. For there are fixed phases in the transformation of opinion and in the public rehabilitation of the miscreant, and he interrupted and deranged them. Most of the Iran-contra crowd seem to know that, as did Richard Nixon and the assorted felons of Watergate who, with admirable self-restraint, were prepared to wait for their piquant cameo parts in our national entertainment until after the 18-months-to-three-years phase and after the book. Similarly patient and, therefore, similarly rewarded were all those especially reckless and violent racist politicians in the South who, having done their futile best to thwart the desegregation of public institutions, came in time to be perceived as earthy and cute.

What are the set phases of redemption? The first is little more than a press inversion. Everyone is noting with an ostentatiously heavy heart these days what a large role we in the press have in bringing down public people, but no one seems to notice that we are, almost simultaneously, the ones who start them back on their path to respectability and big bucks too. This is a reflex action, sometimes the result of there being nothing else to write that day. After the requisite number of pressies have piled on, some columnist or other will rightly perceive that (1) his column is due tomorrow and (2) there is absolutely no angle left to work except that the assault has been overdone or that the official's attempt at ax murder wasn't the first time such things have been tried or something extenuating like that. It will also be ominously pointed out that whatever the fallen one did, it is not nearly so important as the possibility of nuclear war between the superpowers, which we should be talking about instead.

Soon it will have become chic to defend the public person in trouble, or at least to attack those who have brought him down. In his defense it will also be said, with much feeling but without a shred of justification, that whatever the fallen one's crime, you at least have to give him credit for having the guts to admit it. This is almost always said of malefactors who have practically had to be smoke-bombed out of their hideaways before they would acknowledge an act that there was no more denying. Almost immediately thereafter, they themselves of course lay claim to the virtues of candor and bravery too, even though everyone saw them either lying or trying to hide or both before they came out with their hands up. It happened with Hart.

With this phenomenon, we have moved well into the second phase: that in which the public positively converts understandable sympathy with the anguish of the caught-out ones -- especially the family -- into a kind of no-fault, heroic romance, in which the perpetrator's ordeal is spoken of with great fervor and its causes all but forgotten. In fact, amid all the supermarket-tabloid concern with how the family is doing, the accounts of how religious faith saw them through, the growing applause on TV shows and at political rallies at the mention of their name, it is soon considered somewhat graceless and obsessive even to allude to the act that got them in trouble.

At this point, Phase Three can begin. It entails our new hero's, say, writing a magazine article or being invited to participate on a panel concerned with some unrelated subject. A couple such enterprises, and it becomes downright vindictive to bring up the old offense. I mean, are you going to hound this person forever? What's the matter with you? Phase Four is repentance. It is optional. Sometimes it can be skipped altogether with no appreciably adverse effect on the applause meter.

It is true that sometimes the public gets a little fed up with its own complaisancy in these matters and more than a little resentful of the apparent profitability of scoundrelhood. So-called Son of Sam laws have been enacted which are designed to take the financial gain out of gruesome crime by denying book profits to one who wishes to write about his depravities. You hear occasional grousing about how celebrity seems almost inevitably to follow -- to flow from -- the perpetration of some unseemly, even criminal act. But by and large we submit. We lap it up. The problem is that our standard has become almost entirely one of public approbation or lack of it. People are, as we say, "back" when a certain proportion of respondents in a poll express a favorable view.

I may have overstated it at the outset in relation to Evan Mecham. I mean, maybe somewhere, somehow, we will reach a lower limit; and he would be a suitable candidate for that honor. Still, I can as easily see him in the late-night-TV, lovable-rapscallion role. These odd public rites of absolution without repentance amount to saying that the offense, whatever it may have been, didn't matter. In America, nothing succeeds these days like disgrace.