Those of us who have often wished that all the embarrassing photographs of our long-haired, bell-bottomed adolescent selves could somehow be expunged from every family album and high school yearbook should in theory have sympathy for the increasing number of politicians who in recent years have found their careers jeopardized by what Henry Hyde so endearingly called--in reference to his own midlife adulterous affair--"youthful indiscretions."

Given how distant we feel from those strangely dressed, oddly coiffed teenagers bearing our names and pretending to be us, how unfair it seems that we should still be judged for their innocent, misguided experiments with sex and pharmaceuticals! And how can we reasonably expect our civic leaders to have grown up faster than we did, to have been born knowing the necessity of walking the straight and narrow path?

In the last few months, George W. Bush has joined the ever-lengthening roster of candidates, would-be candidates, nominees for office and elected officials (from Teddy Kennedy to Bill Clinton, Douglas Ginsberg to Hyde) who have been obliged to do some fast talking or resolute stonewalling when faced with questions about alleged lapses that threaten to defile the spotless image--the pristine record of lifelong saintly behavior--that we seem to expect from our political leaders. Bush admits to an extended battle with alcohol, which he appears to have won by jumping resolutely on the wagon--with God's help, he says--after an especially dark night of the soul. That was 13 years ago, when he was 40 years old.

He has been notably less forthcoming about his possible flirtations with amateur pharmacology, refusing to admit or deny unproved but persistent rumors. His stated reason for evading these inquiries--that neither confession nor refutation will finally make any difference--has, sadly, been borne out by the amount of media ink already spilled over what so far is only gossip and unsubstantiated hearsay.

The debates surrounding such questions--What are youthful indiscretions? How much should we, the voters, be willing to overlook and forgive? What do these past misdemeanors reveal about a candidate's character and judgment?--raise a host of other issues that illuminate the ways in which our culture views youth, maturity, generational differences, morality, accountability and, perhaps most important, the increasingly fuzzy and ill-defined border between public and private life.

Several things seem obvious. First of all, thanks to the demographics of an aging population and the comparatively unhurried rate at which the baby boomer generation grew up, mistakes made at the tender age of 40 have somehow managed to become "youthful indiscretions." No longer do we necessarily hew to the belief that a child's character is fully formed by the age of seven. Strikingly, the 38-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. was widely referred to, after his death, as a young man who died with his whole life ahead of him. It may be true that--as they say, or used to say--life begins at 40. Important contributions have been made by late bloomers such as novelist Raymond Chandler, who didn't start writing seriously until he was in his fifties. But don't we assume, or suspect, that one's character is fairly well formed by the time one reaches what is, technically, middle age?

We Americans may have a cultural and spiritual commitment to believing in drastic acts of repentance and reformation, in the possibility that anyone can, through sheer effort of will, turn his or her life around. But the painful evidence of the not-so-distant past suggests that the experience of being elected to office--and the glare of the political spotlight--are less inclined to inspire a sudden conversion to righteousness than a reversion to, or a recurrence of, one's most unattractive habits. If a candidate has a problem--let's just suppose it's womanizing--it's (at least statistically) unlikely that election will make him appreciate the previously hidden virtues and rewards of marital fidelity. It may be true that 18-year-olds make some egregiously stupid decisions; but if someone is displaying bad judgment at 30 or 40, what hope do we have that, at 50, that person will suddenly--finally--learn to think sensibly and clearly?

What makes this all the more complicated is our society's notoriously blurred and short-sighted sense of history. Our inability to view youth in light of the historical period in which that youth was spent makes it harder to ascertain what youthful folly really is, or was--and effectively blinds us to the serious character flaws that are something more than simply reflections of the variously loose or repressive mores of an entire generation. Now that more and more of our political candidates grew up in the '60s and '70s, it's begun to seem improbable that any of them could not have been exposed to the omnipresent seductions of premarital sex or illegal drugs. Many people I know were less upset by the possibility that Bill Clinton smoked marijuana (Who didn't? And who wanted to vote for someone so rigid and incurious about something that, it seemed at the time, the whole culture was doing?) than by the sleazy evasiveness evinced in his risible claim that he didn't inhale. Focused on the youthful transgression--the smoking joint, as it were--the electorate somehow missed alarming implications of the loopy spin that the adult character (or lack of character) put on the juvenile misbehavior, an oversight that would eventually get our nation into so much expensive and demoralizing trouble.

It's probably true that no one wants a sex addict or hard-core substance abuser running around the White House, lurching about the War Room, stumbling muzzily through the motions required to resolve some national or international crisis. (One might argue that Ronald Reagan's geriatric lapses were just as damaging as Clinton's middle-aged ones.) But a good deal of our focus on these "youthful indiscretions" is, like so much else in our culture, a sort of mass misdirection, a wholesale sleight-of-hand that keeps us looking fixedly in the wrong direction while the real crimes and absurdities--the costly and tragic adult mistakes--are transpiring elsewhere.

Social, economic and political questions, national and international issues--the things that really affect our lives and the lives of people all over the world--are so much more complicated and less sexy than the romantic affairs and the drug histories of our elected officials. The wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, the mass slaughter in Rwanda were so confusing, so disturbing, so morally problematic and hard to follow compared with the reassuringly simple questions of what happened in and around the Oval Office. Even now, few Americans know the difference between Tutsis and Hutus, or can sketch the most rudimentary map of the disputed areas of the Balkans. But all of us have private lives and strongly held opinions about how others should behave, in and outside the work place. And the vast majority know where Monica Lewinsky bought her infamous blue dress.

How disturbing that, already, so much more attention has been paid to the chemicals George W. Bush may or may not have ingested than to his hazy grasp of domestic issues and international relations, or to his chilling suggestion that our foreign policy should be based on the criterion of what is "good for America." We hear that Americans have grown sick of the relentless media prying into politicians' private lives, yet much of that protestation seems patently hypocritical. Newspaper sales did not decline on those days when the Starr Report was printed, nor did the nation turn off its television sets en masse when Barbara Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky. For all the grumbling about the focus on private life at the expense of public policy, the fact remains that sex and drugs still fascinate; scandal still sells.

Meanwhile, we're so busy talking about private life, about youthful and middle-aged folly and indiscretion, that we no longer know how to talk about public life, about serious issues. As it becomes harder to tell candidates apart by their positions and platforms, by what they promise and how they perform, all we can do is distinguish the sex addict or the alcoholic from the seemingly upright family man, or woman. We've almost lost interest, as a nation, in health care and welfare reform, in our responsibilities as a global peacekeeper--all the things we forgot about during our mass affair with Ms. Lewinsky. We don't have the attention span, the concentration, the maturity to deal with these less-than-sexy issues. And several decades of consistently undereducating our students have produced a population without the basic information--the most rudimentary knowledge of geography, political science and economics, the ability to reason and think logically and clearly--necessary to formulate a thoughtful, adult understanding of what we want and need in an elected official.

The real issue, then, is not what constitutes a politician's juvenile indiscretion and how important it is, but the attention we pay to stories of past misconduct. Does our focus on such matters indicate that we have regressed to, or become frozen at, a stage when we talk about nothing much else--in the same simultaneously hushed and overheated tones in which adolescents discuss sex and drugs? What our fixation on the indiscretions of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Douglas Ginsberg and Henry Hyde suggests is the frightening possibility that the real youthful folly is, ultimately, our own.

Francine Prose's new novel, "Blue Angel," will be published by HarperCollins next spring.