I have to root. When I cannot, I cannot even pretend interest in a struggle. This is the case now with the Iran-Iraq war, with any World Series without the Brooklyn Dodgers, and, up until recently, with that most arcane of Washington struggles -- the war over petty differences between Richard Burt at State and Richard Perle at Defense. Both are hawks, both lust for the MX, but only the Richard named Burt would take a swipe at Lauren Bacall.

It was done, it's true, by inadvertence. The New York Times, in an attempt to trivialize one of the epic struggles of our era, had the two Richards reveal their favorites -- magazines, movies, foods, drinks, colors, songs and, even, whether they sleep in pajamas, which they do not. As I went down the list, Perle was losing badly.

What can you make of someone whose favorite reading is government documents? What is there to say about a fellow whose favorite magazines include Commentary, whose favorite movie is "Wild Strawberries" and whose favorite songs are "Danny Boy" and "La Vie en Rose."

For these reasons alone, Burt was ahead on points -- but just barely. Here, after all, was a man just about herniating in an attempt to be eclectically trendy. His favorite food is Tex Mex; his favorite performer is Bruce Springsteen; one of his heroes is Margaret Thatcher and one of his favorite presidents is Richard Nixon.

The difference between the two men only became stark when it came to "favorite actor." Perle named Paul Scofield. But Burt, whose favorite movie is "Casablanca," chose two: Humphrey Bogart and -- wait! -- not Lauren Bacall, but "young Lauren Bacall." There you have it. The conservative at his worst -- a man for whom appearances are everything.

I would be the last to deny that the young Lauren Bacall was, as they say, something to look at. Along with the forever young Veronica Lake and the absolutely astonishing Ava Gardner in "One Touch of Venus," this was a rare beauty -- not just pretty, not merely gorgeous, but ethereal.

But there is something about Burt's use of the word "young" that implies that Bacall is, like some Miss America type, a butterfly of a woman who came and went in a season. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Bacall has aged, she has become different -- richer, more interesting and more personable -- not to mention feisty. She has become, in fact, proof for those men who need it that beauty in a woman, like good looks in a man, ripens with age, that beauty and youth are not synonymous.

This is often not the way it's seen. Rich men in their dotage would rather spend their evening with some bauble of a girl than with a full-grown woman. They think that women, in the end, are like automobiles -- all image and appearance. When your soul aches, go talk to your Jaguar, you old fool.

Bacall is no longer a Jaguar. But I would rather spend an evening with her than any 20-year-old -- even that lady in "Splash" . . . even if she came with cue cards . . . even if her favorite movie were "Wild Strawberries" and even, somehow, if she could know what I meant when I said I both dreaded and could not wait for my son to get older. She could not know -- know by experience, which is the only way to know certain things.

But Bacall would. She has the age, the miles, the character. The young Bacall was a beauty; the older Bacall, like many women like her, is just a different kind of beauty. A toast. To Bacall and older women: Here's looking at you, kids. Another toast. To Richard Burt: Here's mud in your eye.