If it's mid-July in Washington, one can be sure of two things. Only hippos and other hot weather creatures would stay here willingly, and intermingling with the hot air will be the familiar scent of another summer scandal.

Excluding Marion Barry, an old story whose essential elements have been well known, this season's scandal involves the S&Ls.

They're not a new story, but they've become Washington's latest media/political summer preoccupation. Each day brings more page one headlines, each night more extensive TV network coverage. Such media attention is certain to intensify, for reasons good and bad.

The S&Ls are a real scandal, not one pumped up by a sensation-seeking press facing the slowest period of the year's news cycle. As Americans have come to understand, the S&L scandal is of historic proportions, and each must bear its ultimate cost. The public will pay for decades. It's also a scandal that perfectly symbolizes the combination of rank factors that characterized the 1980s: greed, political corruption and gross negligence.

It is a story about regulators who did not regulate, watchers who did not watch and politicians who profited from association with flagrant big dealers who lined their pockets at the expense of ordinary citizens and their savings.

Until recently, however, the S&L story lacked the element that made it readily identifiable to the public. It was too big, too diffuse, too complicated. How does one measure the loss of at least half a trillion dollars? Sure, there were the "Keating Five," but months after those names surfaced in the news, hardly anyone can name all of the senators involved or explain what their problem was.

Now, the S&L focus is shifting to a single target, and a big one: the president's son. Fairly or not, Neil Bush is becoming the center of the increasingly fractious and political S&L mess.

Every parent can identify with the president's obvious anguish and anger in this situation. His attempt to remain apart from the controversy in which Neil Bush finds himself and yet also to defend the honor and reputation of his son is poignant and commendable. It also is almost impossible, as was obvious in the president's remarks at a news conference in Houston Wednesday.

In responding to a question about his son's role in a Colorado S&L failure, at a billion-dollar bailout cost to the taxpayers, President Bush found himself teetering between expressions of public neutrality and private outrage.

"I agree that the president ought to stay out of it," he began, "and that the system ought to work. And I have great confidence in the integrity and honor of my son. And beyond that, I'm -- say no more. And if he's done something wrong, the system will -- will -- will digest that. I have -- this is not easy for me, as a father; it's easy for me as the president because the system is going to work, and I will not intervene. I've not discussed this with any officials and suggested any outcome."

The more he talked, the more emotional he sounded. No one listening could help but identify with his emotion and his dilemma. In the end, he said exactly what was right from the standpoint of a president, and a father:

"One, as president, I am determined to stay out of this and let it work and let it work fairly. And secondly, I have confidence in the honor and integrity of my son. And if the system finds he's done something wrong, he will be the first to step up and do what's right."

It was the best possible response to a bad situation made worse, with no little irony, by the public comments of the president's son himself.

In almost daily newspaper and television interviews this week, Neil Bush has been combative and defensive. He has not been a good advocate for himself. He has succeeded only in directing more attention to his case.

Not once, so far as I can tell from reading those interviews and seeing him on television, has he indicated that he understands why the S&L scandal is so disturbing to Americans. His own experience is a case in point. With no banking experience, this young man became the director of an S&L. He got there on his name. While acting as a director, he profited personally from dealings with high-rollers who obtained millions in loans from the S&L. The most he acknowledges about the now-famous $100,000 loan that he received from a Denver investor and which was never intended to be repaid is that it was "an incredibly sweet deal."

Neil Bush doesn't understand why anyone would think that seemed wrong. Almost everyone else does.