"Billygate" isn't Watergate, cooler heads remind us. Of course, the same cooler heads used to tell us Watergate wasn't Watergate. Maybe they were right both times. In both cases, the flood of media attention seems disproportionate to the substance of what is being attended.

At least Richard Nixon broke the law. What has Jimmy Carter done? Maybe leaked some rather innocuous information to his kid brother, including the contents of low-level classified documents. Maybe tipped him off that prosecution was imminent unless he registered as a Libyan agent. But if even that were really so serious, more attention would have been focused on it. eThe general intuition is that no single aspect of the case matters all that much, yet the whole mess matters hugely.

The fall of greatness is the stuff of tragedy. Many people delight in that spectacle, which it is the business and profit of the news media to supply, if necessary by amplifying and accelerating events. The Democrats are increasingly willing to cooperate, though the hour is late, lest they go down with the millstone that is Carter. If they can dump him, fast, they can blame him personally for all the consequences of liberal policies since 1964. Carter the scapegoat might be as great an asset as Carter the president is a liability.

So look for the pressure to mount. Every new detail of "Billygate" (horrid neologism!) will be made to sound like a ghastly revelation. Senators will adopt grave conspiratorial mien, as they hold hasty hushed meetings to cope with the alleged crisis. What a fraudulent farce.

Most fraudulent of all are the demands for an "open convention" in New York. Now, "open" is one of those halo-words at which we are supposed to nod automatically. Who can be against openness? Richelieu, maybe. But an "open" convention would be brokered in an old-fashioned way, by the professionals in the suites.

Even more ludicrous is the suggestion of Edward Kennedy that the Democratic delegates be "freed" to "follow their consciences." Have you ever seen conscience in a room full of Democrats? It hasn't even got a chance. Not that Democrats don't have consciences, but that when they convene, it isn't individual introspection but herd behavior that takes over. Kennedy, scion of Boston's Irish politics, knows that very well, even when he invokes the old Yankee Calvinist rhetoric. This will be a convention at which the bodies outnumber the souls.

Kennedy's proposal has another flaw -- namely, that it violates the whole idea of a delegate. A delegate who is "free" to disregard the terms of his delegation has ceased to be a delegate at all. The people who will gather in New York have received their orders; and it's hypocritical to talk as if invalidating those orders would be some kind of service to the voters who chose Carter in the primaries. A fine time to tell them they were in effect voting for uncommitted delegates!

In any case, it is a disservice to the electorate as a whole to set aside the rules that it understood itself to be operating under. The liberal reformers have the primary system they asked for. Now they want to re-reform it -- in the name of "fairness" to the people they imposed it on. It must have been a pretty shifty reform in the first place.

Then there are the Reagan people to consider. Republicans chose Ronald Reagan in the primaries in part because they were calculating that Democrats were choosing Jimmy Carter in simultaneous primaries. No doubt it would be convenience for the Demos, now, to pit the comforting image of Ed Muskie against the Republican nominee; Muskie is probably the most potent antidote to Reagan they could field. But -- in the words of a former president -- it would be wrong.

Politics is the only activity that comes to mind in which changing the rules is part of the game. Still, changing them in the bottom of the inning seems like a cheat. What passes for "reform" and "openness" looks increasingly like a refined form of gerrymandering.