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WHEN THE WORDS GET FLYING, THE STANDARDS BLUR

It's right there on Page 159 of Howard Kurtz's exceptional (and exceptionally well-timed) new book, "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine." Al Gore is being prepped for a TV appearance. Presidential press secretary Mike McCurry "scribbled a note" about it to Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel, "This is going to be a f------ disaster."

Simple enough.

So, with Kurtz sitting at his side, CNN's Bernard Shaw opened the book and read the passage aloud, complete with F-word.

You would have thought the heavens had caved in. Remember that when Charlie Rocket let the word slip on "Saturday Night Live" years ago, he was promptly fired. Shaw has apparently been apologizing for it for the past week. It wouldn't surprise me if he gets on elevators in Atlanta and says to complete strangers, "You're right, I shouldn't have done it" before he even says, "Good morning."

Shaw has a bit of a history of overdoing it. In the 1988 presidential debates, he asked Michael Dukakis and George Bush what they would do if their wives were raped. His way of doing it was so overwrought that when he finished, Bush, who seemed genuinely embarrassed for him, laughed nervously, shook his head and said, "Bernie . . . " before he answered the question.

Shaw's F-word fandango, though, was a classic example for anyone who needed one of what a confusing mess public language "standards" have become.

Very few people reading Kurtz's book would dawdle for a second reading of Page 159. It's an accepted fact that a brilliant, extended piece of reportage about the Clinton administration's machinery for information management would contain an ample amount of four-letter candor.

Let someone read the page aloud over the airwaves, though, and you might as well call out the National Guard.

There is a common three-letter word for the human posterior which David Letterman uses at least five times per show on an average night and which has even made it to mid-evening sitcoms. The word couldn't possibly be more everyday. It goes back to Old English and is the word most of us would use to explain what happened if we slipped and fell on the ice.

In the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, there are no fewer than 14 large, ripe and bursting pages listing the common street phrases and compounds of the word.

And yet few if any of us around here would dream of using it in a newspaper unless it were in a quote and was so important that it couldn't be avoided.

It gets even stranger. Jay Leno, who doesn't begin to use that particular word as often as Letterman, gets a TV-14 rating for his nightly show, where Letterman gets a PG.

I understand that, no matter how arbitrary it seems. There is an oafishness about Leno's jokes at their worst that is completely different from Letterman, whose show, most often, seems to be about oafishness and smuttiness in the same way that it's not a talk show but rather a comedy show about talk shows. Letterman's terminal irony and irreversible intelligence, in other words, save him from seeming as raunchy as Leno.

Network news during Zippergate has routinely brought words into the American home that were unthinkable about 15 years ago.

Getting up on a soapbox and railing about vanishing "standards" isn't going to get anyone anywhere, for a very simple reason: There are no "standards" these days. That is, "standards" are the very things that are being redefined in virtually every news cycle.

The Letterman-Leno conflict, though, seems to be the revealing one. It isn't the words used as much as the context and the intent behind the words. Leno's jokes are of the old-fashioned smoker variety; Letterman's are TV's state-of-the-art comic postmodernism.

Howard Kurtz quoting Mike McCurry matter-of-factly is merely telling a story with journalistic dispassion. Bernard Shaw, the poor soul, quoting Howard Kurtz, is merely being an oaf.

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