Don't expect anybody to do the right thing in the case of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy masquerading as a political football.

You would, of course, because you're just a decent-minded citizen. You'd have sent the kid home to his father so fast people would have thought he was a Haitian. But suppose you were, say, a presidential candidate with a chance of at least making a good showing in the primaries. Would you anger Florida's large, organized and vocal Cuban community and thereby write off any hope of winning the state by urging that America do the right thing?

More likely you'd tell yourself that (1) your political success would be good for America, (2) saying something sensible about Elian would be bad for your political success, and (3) your personal position on the case wouldn't make any difference anyway, so (4) saying something sensible would be so useless and self-destructive as to amount to narcissism.

Or suppose you were a first-year judge in Miami (where jurists are elected). And suppose that you were under investigation for possible campaign finance irregularities, that pending investigation of the allegations (brought by the person who ran against you) you had been reassigned from the criminal courts to family court--and that, right out of the blue, the case of Elian Gonzalez landed in your lap.

You could defer to the feds, on the ground that it was hardly a local matter; you could opine that the boy ought to be returned to his father (which wouldn't have settled anything) or you could temporize. You could set a hearing date for a couple of months down the road, elating the Cuban lobby and perhaps sealing your reelection chances, confident that at worst you'd be overruled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service or the federal courts. Either way, no skin off your nose.

I'm not accusing any of the presidential candidates of lying about their actual feelings on the case; maybe every one of them thinks keeping Elian in limbo for a month or two longer is just the right thing to do. Nor am I accusing Circuit Court Judge Rosa Rodriguez (no--her heritage is Puerto Rican) of letting political considerations interfere with her judicial reasoning. She might have reached the same decision had she been elected unanimously and for life.

I'm simply saying that doing the right thing is a lot easier when you're sitting on the sidelines (like a newspaper columnist, for instance) than when your decisions can have a deadly effect on your own ambitions--even while making little difference in the real world.

It isn't likely to be much different for Doris Meissner, commissioner of the INS, who, both during her tenure and before that at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has had some uncommonly wise things to say about immigration policy.

The INS said Tuesday it had no plans to forcibly return Elian to Cuba following Judge Rodriguez's ruling. Maybe there's wisdom (and not mere self-protectionism) in that decision. The thing is ugly enough as it is without the INS and its parent Justice Department sending federal agents to wrest a screaming 6-year-old from the arms of relatives who swear they love him and want only what is best for the boy.

And what is best for the boy? At the risk of sounding Clintonian, it really does depend on what "best" is.

I don't mean the easy-to-settle mock dispute between the relative affluence Elian would enjoy with his U.S. relatives and the relative poverty of his father's home in Cuba. There is the much harder-to-dismiss argument that, taking the two situations in their entirety, a case can be made for having the boy grow up not merely well-cared-for but free.

Already, there've been people poking around in Cuba looking for evidence that Juan Miguel Gonzalez is not exactly a paragon of fatherhood (Why didn't he come to America to get his son?) or that he is afraid to say what he really thinks while he remains in Fidel Castro's jurisdiction. Judge Rodriguez already has said that if Dad doesn't show up at the March 6 hearing, it could adversely affect his interests. Even if Castro says he can't come?

The best interest of the child. When you come right down to it, that mellifluous phrase is almost devoid of meaning absent evidence of actual mistreatment. I have no trouble whatever imagining that some baby born while you're reading these words--perhaps to a poor, unschooled but loving mother, perhaps to affluent but money-fixated professionals--might be better off growing up under my roof.

But so what? I say it takes a pretty darned good reason to take somebody else's baby. I haven't heard it yet.