ATTORNEYS for the New Jersey and national...


ATTORNEYS for the New Jersey and national Democratic parties tomorrow will question a Republican political operative under oath about how he ran a campaign in that state.

This was ordered by a federal judge. It has nothing directly to do with possible criminal acts. There is a separate investigation into that by law enforcement agencies.

What's going on here? Hardball politics of the sort Ed Rollins and his client, Governor-elect Christine Whitman, are accused of are as old as the two-party system. Older. No American tradition is so solidly entrenched.

This is the fifth election loss Democrats have tried to invalidate in a courtroom in the past year. Have some Democrats decided that good old-fashioned "dirty politics," which they once excelled in, don't work for them anymore, so they want political questions settled somewhere other than the ballot box?

I put "dirty politics" in quotes, because I do not for a minute believe that what Ed Rollins said was done in New Jersey was necessarily "dirty." What he said was done was that the Republicans gave money to black ministers in return for their keeping black voters away from the polls on election day.

Now, suppose Democrats were giving money to black ministers to convince voters who didn't really care about the Democratic candidate to vote for him anyway. That sort of thing is widespread, and not just in black communities. So suppose Republicans went to the same ministers and said, "If you're only turning out the vote to get money for community projects, or any other such reason, not out of honest commitment, we'll hold you harmless. We'll make up the money you'd forgo by not getting out the vote."

That's not "dirty." I'd say it is, as Ollie North said of Iran-contra, "neat." Illegal? Maybe, but how can what I described be illegal and what it countered not be?

(By the way, as of now there is no evidence that what Rollins boasted of having done actually was done. Black and white experts on New Jersey's political landscape say close analysis of the election results show that the Democratic black vote was down primarily because black registration was down, which suggests pre-election day disenchantment with the Democrats and Gov. Jim Florio, who in fact took blacks for granted in his campaign.)

Everybody knows that Mr. Dooley said, "Politics ain't beanbag." The quote continues: "Tis a man's game; and women, children and prohibitionists'd do well to keep out of it." (To the P.C. Police, I remind you that he wrote that in 1895. He'd be the first to say today that women can play "the man's game.")

Without those who relish electoral combat and have a little larceny in their hearts, politics wouldn't be much fun -- and the government it produces wouldn't be so hot, either. Eugene McCarthy likes to remind reformers and purists, quoting a line of obscure poetry, "if you distill the pond, the water lilies die."

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