Credit Mayor Barry with another dazzling display of Instant Executive Ignorance. When the going gets uncomfortably rough around him, he has a three-point program for coping with it: 1)deny any knowledge of what happened; 2)be suitably incensed that it did happen; and 3)note that if only this mayor had known, it would never have been allowed to happen. This is effective, of course, in two situations: when it's true, and when no one can effectively refute what he says.

But this week Mr. Barry came up with something of a whopper. Reacting to a slaying and incidents of rowdiness and fighting at Washington's big New Year's Eve celebration -- which the mayor and his wife, Effi, attended -- Mr. Barry claimed he was unaware that liquor was sold during the event and that he would have disapproved if he had known. "It's the first I've heard of it," he said. Really? If you buy that, you can buy the next round; what did he think those bartenders were pouring from all those bottles with the jiggers on top -- Classic Coke?

While it may not be the best idea for these occasions, it was legal. The mayor is suggesting a policy for this event that would be the same as that for the city's summertime Riverfest celebration: beer but no hard liquor. Given the different drinking ages -- 18 for beer, 21 for hard liquor -- this change at least would equalize the drinkers and make life a little easier (though not necessarily more lucrative) for vendors.

Though the evening had its tragedy and its unpleasant incidents, it was by prevailing national standards fairly tame. At Pasadena's Rose Bowl parade on New Year's Day, for example, there were 481 arrests (427 of them for drunkenness), a bomb scare, violence that critically wounded one man who was shot in the face and seriously injured another who was slashed in the face. Nevertheless, Washington's party could stand more discipline, and already the police chief says the department will add 100 to 150 officers to the more than 300 who worked the scene this time.

Washington's celebration can be fun if order is maintained -- even if Mr. Barry doesn't always know what's going on.