This is crab country. Put a chicken neck on a string, toss it into the saltwater creek off Inlet Point and get your net ready. Or put out a dead fish as bait and bring in a squirming basket of crabs clawing and wounding each other with a destructive energy that spares not even themselves.

This beach town serves as a good place, then, to observe at a distance the Washington scrum of politicians, journalists, zealot prosecutors and lecturing moralists of all stripes going at each other over the vital questions of whether Karl Rove or former ambassador Joseph Wilson is the greater liar and threat to the republic, and exactly how "confidential" other journalists' "confidential" sources should be.

The French, naturally enough, have a term for a mass of nasty people doing endlessly nasty things to each other in a no-exit environment. And un panier de crabes -- a basket of crabs -- is what the politico-journalistic village of Washington resembles in this unhinged summer.

Charity and perspective vanish when combat is this close and unrelenting. So many disingenuous battles are being fought for so many murky purposes that clarity and comprehension are the first casualties of this war of words. It is impossible to say who is doing what to whom. And the participants seem unconcerned that they are on their way to becoming crab cakes.

Battles in academia are said to be so fierce because the stakes are so small. In Washington scandal today, the stakes are enormous; it is the protagonists who are small. When you get finished reading the oceans of ink and watching the eternity of broadcast sound bites devoted to Rove and Wilson, you know for sure only that they deserve each other.

The missing element in a true Washington scandal -- what a chorus girl in a swing is to New York, a transvestite call-person to London, or a gigantic securities fraud to Paris -- finally surfaced last weekend when the New York Times breathlessly reported that a State Department memorandum may have been at the heart of Rove-Wilsongate.

Documentation, however obscure and contradictory, is true happiness for Washington investigative types. That it was apparently impossible to determine (or perhaps to explain) to whom, by whom and why the memo was written in no way detracted from the front-page shock.

Politicians -- including those one step removed, such as Rove and Wilson -- seem resigned to the time they spend in the village crab basket. They understand perfectly well their line of work and its duty to defame.

But it is surprising to see journalists so quickly and condescendingly join in clawing each other. Some hector Judith Miller of the New York Times to go back on her word to assuage a public supposedly fed up with the media, while others castigate Time magazine's Matt Cooper for ceding even a sliver of First Amendment rights under legal and corporate pressure.

Look beyond the shoot-the-wounded quality of such advice and the obvious and inherent conflict of interest in commentary by anonymous-source users on other anonymous-source users. More instructive is how blurred the lines between the pols and the journos have become. Man-bites-dog is a bygone standard for news. Now the story is pontificator-bites-pontificator. (Well, who else do you meet?) A rule of thumb for the Washington news business that is serviceable but not invariable is that you become who you cover. When three words -- Rep. Tom DeLay -- can cause sensible people to break out laughing, it is tempting to conclude that contemporary politics has brought forth a generation of pygmies, and the journalists worthy of covering them.

It is columnist convention when writing from spots like Pawleys -- where the only traffic bulletins come in the foot- and paw-prints left on the wet sand -- to bring in wizened locals sitting around a cracker barrel to inform us how out of touch with reality the Washington Village is. But Rove-Wilsongate goes the convention one better: Even inhabitants inside the New York-Washington media beltway are mystified by the capital's sense of priorities and values in this case.

"The only person in jail is Judy Miller, who didn't write a word about a story she may or may not have been told," says the lady on the beach next to me. Actually, that's no lady, that's my wife, Jane Stanton Hitchcock, who writes twisty and turny novels about New York society but can't make sense of this tale. Like everyone else at Pawleys, she yearns simply for a narrative that says whodunit, what "it" was, and who, outside the crab basket, could care.