In the last few weeks, journalists have skewered Pete Rose for his gambling, John McCain for his vein-popping conniption fits, George W. Bush for flunking a social studies quiz, and Al Gore for hiring a woman to teach him how to be a man.

Humiliating stuff, right? Except it all pretty much backfired.

Rose came off smelling like one, while the man who cornered him on camera had to flog himself with an apology on national TV. The same newspaper that made a national issue of McCain's supposed tantrums later questioned what all the fuss was about, pointing out that American heroes such as George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt also had, ahem, hair-trigger tempers. Bush was widely judged to be the victim of a cheap shot, defended even by Democrats, including, grudgingly, the president of the United States. Gore was unscathed and unsissified, holding steady in the polls, possibly because his once-secret adviser, the telegenic Naomi Wolf, emerged from a series of profiles looking precisely like the kind of brainy fox an alpha male might want on his payroll.

It's a familiar cycle of bash and backlash, as old as American politics. Bad publicity can become a politician's best friend, if the public perceives it to be unfair. In 1884, Grover Cleveland waddled into the White House partly because voters were repulsed by the scurrilous campaign, in which his opponent accused him of fathering a child out of wedlock. (Cleveland did father a child out of wedlock. Bush didn't know the leader of India. Rose is a shifty-eyed oil slick. But all that is beside the point. This is not about facts--it's about perception, and the press.)

Which brings me to my proposal.

I hereby offer the following services to any candidate:

I'll savage you in print, for a fee.

You can either put me on your payroll (say, $15,000 per month, which is what Wolf was getting for telling Gore to wear brown and mark his territory) or we can work out a pay-per-smear deal.

Here's how it works: I slander you, big time. You refuse to dignify the charges with a response. ("Refusing to Dignify" is a great gambit. It earns respect. Politicians should use it more often, particularly when caught red-handed. Marion Barry should have used it in that hotel room, with the pipe still smoking in his hand.) The injustice of my allegation will become apparent. The rest of the media will rush to your defense. You will become the aggrieved innocent. I will become the villain. Your approval ratings will soar.

Here are my rates:

A simple character assassination costs $500. For example:

By Gene Weingarten

Washington Post Staff Writer

NASHUA, N.H., Nov. 14--Republican presidential candidate John McCain is an abominable bolus of putrefaction, The Washington Post has learned.

The palpable unfairness of this will produce howls of protest and sympathy for the candidate. (Plus, when McCain does not punch out my lights, he will put to rest that flying-off-the-handle rap.) But my fee is modest because, while the statement is ludicrous, it isn't all that far removed from the sort of stuff that already appears as opinion on the op-ed pages. I'm up against people like Richard Cohen and Maureen Dowd, who, to the best of my knowledge, do not charge for their assaults. I have to stay competitive.

For a truly Major Hit, though, you would have to pony up $25,000:

By Gene Weingarten

Washington Post Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Nov. 15--George W. Bush, the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president, said today in an exclusive interview that the United States is "a nation of pimps, cowards and degenerates."

The advantage of this one is that it has staying power. Everyone would have to report it. For one news cycle, the candidate would stoically refuse to dignify it, until the following morning, when the following item would appear in a teensy box on Page 2 of The Washington Post:


In an article yesterday, a quotation from Saddam Hussein's half-brother was mistakenly attributed to George W. Bush.

(A "clarification" is the journalist's version of a "Refusal to Dignify.")

For an additional fee, I will use certain loaded words in my stories about you: "Controversial" will run you $25. "Shadowy" costs $100. "Sordid" is $250 (money well spent).

But in the bash-and-backlash game, the greatest advantage is to be gained by the most serious charges, because when such charges are discredited, public sympathy is at its highest. A politician wrongly accused of truly heinous acts can ride his rebound for months.

And so, for $250,000 I will print a total mind-blowing slam-o-rama:

By Gene Weingarten

Washington Post Staff Writer

NASHVILLE, Nov. 16--Albert Gore Jr., the presumptive Democratic candidate for president, is the mastermind of an international criminal conspiracy to kidnap children from Third World nations and sell their organs for transplantation to Middle East oil barons. Puppies are also involved.

The price tag for this one is steep because I'll probably lose my job when I am forced to admit that my source was, y'know, a Magic 8 Ball. ("Hey, it said, 'Yes, Definitely.' ")

But for this fee you get my contrition as well. My confession will be suitably stingy and ungenerous, compounding the error the way Jim Gray did on NBC, after the Pete Rose fiasco. I'll say: "If Mr. Gore was in any way embarrassed by whatever errors of fact may or may not have been committed vis--vis my article, I regret it. But may I point out that he still resembles a wedding-cake groom? Thank you."

Regardless, I'll take the risk. Because after an initial wave of condemnation by the media, I'll probably be given the benefit of the doubt. My career will rebound. This is America. No one wants to be unfair.

Gene Weingarten is a writer and editor on The Post's Style staff.