In Washington it is an honor to be disgraced. By that I mean you have to have been somebody to fall. Otherwise, who cares? This aspect of their obliteration never seems much consolation to the people we are pitching off the cliff, the ingrates. Rather, many of them tend to get teary and indignant and sometimes even surly. This is a fatal mistake made by those who don't understand that what is being judged is not so much the right and wrong of what they have done as the manner in which they behave when confronted with it and whether they are clever or strong or lucky enough to survive. We are, in other words, a fairly harsh and unforgiving lot here, but luckily for those who get in trouble, it is not their crimes or other misconduct we are inclined not to forgive (we don't care so much about these and often can't remember what they were). What we don't forgive is losing, failure. Win again at our particular game and you are back.

These morose and cynical thoughts were brought on by more than seeing my old role model, Richard Nixon, back on the cover of Newsweek recently. Those of us who have spent our adult lifetime being obsessed with Nixon never doubted for a moment that he would be back; it was as inevitable as the rain that ruins the barely opened peonies each year. But the reappearance of Nixon and his fitting out as elder statesman in a season when a lot of contemporary public people here may be heard screaming as they plunge down the abyss does prompt a few reflections on the meaning of disgrace in Washington.

First question: does it have any meaning at all? Answer: only in an extremely limited sense. We rarely call disgrace "disgrace," and are surpassingly uncomfortable when we do. In keeping with our designation of failure and success -- as distinct from vice and virtue -- as prime values against which all else must be measured, we concentrate on "how" the person under fire is "doing," not on what he or she may have done.

First we go around asking each other how "bad" we think it is for old Deaver, let us say, or Dave Stockman -- that is, how much trouble he is in with other people. This is the way Washington people talked about Nixon during Watergate and Ted Kennedy after Chappaquiddick. We would chew endlessly on the how-bad question, meaning: will the scandal get him or will he get away? Those who don't make it are not said to be disgraced, but rather to be "finished."

This term "finished" is interesting on several counts. First, it has social and political meaning, but no moral or legal meaning at all. It amounts to a kind of figurative stripping of medals, a loss of the power to make the fawners fawn, a change in status that everybody understands. Too many people beat up on David Stockman for his book, and that, not the treachery and unbearable self-righteousness of which they accused him, is what caused him to be pronounced "finished." This is the ultimate Washington sanction, of course, our idea of the death penalty. But because it is derivative, depending always on other people's judgment, not the substance of the offense, the nice thing about being finished in Washington is that, despite the meaning of the word in normal circles, it isn't final. I know people here who have been "finished" several times, and, like Nixon -- though none was ever quite so "finished" as he -- they are back.

It is interesting that even at this late date there seems to be a continuing argument about what Nixon really did and whether it was so terrible. As I say, the offense itself is generally secondary, and this is the more true of life in the maze of post-Watergate rules and laws. These are understood by practically no one -- who can give what or do what on which day and under what circumstances -- and do not represent some moral or legal consensus of the community. Instead, at least here in Washington they have taken on the aspect of an obstacle course. Public people try to get over or around their terms, and when they trip or fall flat everyone moves in and says, "Ha! He violated the one that says you can only spend $12 on Tuesday in your campaign, not $11 on Friday" -- and the game is on irrespective of whether we are talking about a huge crime (sometimes we are) or a nonexistent one. Ultimately only the defendants, writing away on their memoirs of self-justification and (sometimes appropriate) outrage, even remember what they were accused of in the first place.

Rita Lavelle, the woman from the Environmental Protection Agency who went to prison for perjury before Congress, was in my office at The Washington Post not long ago. She wants to clear her name. I felt like a heel that I couldn't even remember what the charge was or what we had said about her at the time, which she, understandably, had very much on her mind. For the spectators it is a game, a cruel one, on the Roman Colosseum model. And what the people down there struggling in the arena are being judged on is their capacity to handle the ordeal. A lot of us praised Geraldine Ferraro for her "handling" of the charges against her in the campaign, paying hardly any attention to the charges themselves. This is generally the way when people get hauled up before Congress -- "How do you think he did?" we will ask. Never mind what the offense may have been. We totally admire skill in getting out of it, applauding from our box seats like dowagers in one of those ancient Deanna Durbin movies, peering through their lorgnettes at one another at the end of the first act and exclaiming: "Why! The girl can sing!"

Nixon made the point to Newsweek apropos of Watergate. "It was a very mishandled thing," he said. It is as close as he comes to an apology because he knows that "mishandling" is as close as you can get to defining disgrace in our politics. It is an infinitely retrievable error, if you're patient and determined to get back. His new respectability should cheer those in the process of being "finished" in Washington just now. Nothing is forever here, not even the end.