The elections are coming and so, therefore, is a new round of discussion, mostly abusive, on the subject of "Washington." I put the poor place in quotes because it is more Washington as an idea -- a collection of bubbleheads and greedies -- than as a reality that will be under discussion. We can already hear the early strains of administration complaint, the odd but inevitable assault those actually in charge of government always make on unnamed Others they claim are really responsible for government's blowzy behavior. It is equally inevitable that at the end of the political season they will come back to town and resume precisely the evil Washington ways they have been condemning "out there" on the hustings all fall.

"Out there" -- that is the other place, the other idea, and it is no less subject to misleading interpretation, although this is usually not of the malevolent so much as the romantic kind. Good old "out there" in amber-waves-of-grain land is what the traveling, Washington-based press goes lyrical about every year or so. Writing from 37,000 feet up for filing from the next plane stop, we explain in the most condescending and literary way how the people are really good and how they are also really troubled and how they want to do the right thing but are understandably confused (by the war or the economy or something comparable) and so are searching for answers.

Yuck. I have just come back from "out there" myself and know for a fact that all this is untrue. The people "out there" have no such passive, lamblike attitudes. You want to know what they think? They think we are all a bunch of crooks (and possibly also perverts, but at a minimum high livers) who are buying ourselves a good time with their hard-earned money, and they think we should either cut it out or be indicted. I have never found Americans to be "troubled" or "confused" by their government in a detached, wistful sort of way. They are sore at it -- always have been and always will be. Their patron saints are Mark Twain and Will Rogers, not the dean of the local School of Government and Public Service, and they fully expect to be fleeced by the reprobates they send to Washington.

What bothers me in all this is the mismatch of cynicisms -- their kind and my kind. I think there is terrible corruption here, but not of the tin-pot kind (if you don't mind my saying so) that seems most to bother people outside Washington. True, the disgusting or amusing anecdotes come to the country from us in the first place. We in Washington are the ones who dig them up and put them on the air or in the papers or at the top of the hearing-room agenda. But somehow the old-fashioned sex-and-money kind of story gets magnified as it travels; it seems not only to reinforce abiding suspicions in the country at large about the way its public servants live, but also to displace all other Washington news, including greatly worse news about the city's collective character flaws.

I noticed this first during the Watergate extravaganza. The farther you got from Washington, it seemed, the larger loomed the personal-corruption aspects of the gathering scandal. You heard more about the tax returns, the gift of earrings to the first lady, the publicly paid-for furnishings and services at San Clemente, down to the last pair of hedge shears and can of rose spray. For many these were the crimes.

Similarly, in looking over a vast range of political cartoons from around the country every week for possible use in The Washington Post, I am struck by the speed and brutal contempt with which any hint of personal aggrandizement or costly tastes is received, not to mention any hint of gross conduct. We are supposed to be the media tough guys and troublemakers here, but from the case of the White House china to the rumors about the corruption of pages on Capitol Hill, the papers in the heartland have regularly printed cartoons that we wouldn't touch with a fork. Their underlying theme and source of preoccupation remain the same, never mind the particular nature of the alleged impropriety at hand. Washington, the complaints and cartoons announce, just as you always feared, is peopled with public servants and their attendants and publicists who are in it for the baubles and the good times.

I don't know quite how to say this, but in some way I wish this were so. It isn't. What I wish is not that we were all crooks and high livers, but rather that the temptations people do succumb to here were so simple and straightforward, so uncomplicated and conventional and, relatively speaking at least, so unsinister. The guy with the penchant for diamond pinkie rings or six-course dinners or exotic sex or vroom-vroom cars who will cut corners to acquire these things -- well, him I figure we will always catch, and if we don't we will in any case survive. I also am at least slightly heartened (I'd put it at no more than 83/4 percent) to learn that this classic miscreant, as a Washington figure, is still susceptible to such normal lusts and affectations. The fellow to look out for is the one who is wholly impervious to such temptations because he is wholly driven by something else.

Ambition is the raving and insatiable beast that most often demands to be fed in this town, and the setting is less likely to be some posh restaurant or glitzy nightclub than a wholly unremarkable glass office building or an inner sanctum somewhere in the federal complex. The reward in the transaction is frequently not currency at all but power and perquisites and ego massage. When it is real money it is likely as not to be the kind you never see, but which turns up as "support": rallies and ads and direct-mail campaigns and testimonial dinners -- all building toward something else, toward yet another power hurdle. And for this -- the whole agglomeration of psychological payoffs -- there are people who will sell or sell out almost anything, including their own self-respect, if any, and the well-being of thousands of others.

I'm not saying that Washington is like that, only that that is what its most notorious crooks look like. It makes them harder to spot in a crowd and harder to ferret out and harder, alas, to get people to worry about. I offer it as a gloomy thought in an election season that in some ways the last thing you need to worry about is your government's taste for caviar.