For those of us lucky enough to spend summers there, the phrase, "go to Maine" is one word, a verb. The action described in that verb conjures up in the mind's eye such images and sensual experiences that one can, for a brief time, "go to Maine" while physically remaining in Washington.

Those reporters who asked the president how he could justify vacationing in Maine while sending young and not-so-young men and women to the hot sands of Saudi Arabia do not understand the power of this compound verb, "go to Maine."

Justify the gathering of family and friends in the Maine salt air where one can wear wool sweaters during the day and sleep under wool blankets at night?

Justify picnics on granite beaches where the truly committed will shed their windbreakers for an invigorating plunge into the icy sea with maybe a few swimming strokes through the slippery kelp?

Justify relaxing at golf, alternating swings at the ball with swings at black flies and mosquitoes?

Justify evening clambakes at the water's edge where the smoke from the bake keeps away the mosquitoes, and the drips of melted butter wash the sand from the clams and, journeying down the chin, soothe the day's skin burn?

Justify the tussle with bluefish, so strong an adversary, so oily a dinner?

Justify the days so housebound by fog that reading around the fire satiates the mind?

To those born, schooled or married into New England, the Puritan ethic lives on. To "go to Maine" is to eschew luxury, to test the body's limits against sea and weather, to test the psyche's limits against the isolation and disorientation of the fog, and thereby to test the soul's limits, and thus renew it.

For the president, Maine is both a lodestone and a flagellant. It was to our advantage to let him be.

LEIGH SHERRILL Washington