The line is fine between prude and prudent, and he - or she - who would be president should figure it out sooner than later. At this juncture, Sen. Hillary Clinton is front of the class, while Sen. John McCain may be tending blackboards for a while.
With the sort of timing only gods can deliver, Clinton was making a boldly maternal move against sex and violence in video games at the same time bad boy McCain was being freeze-framed in the American psyche with randy boys and goofy girls in this summer's adolescent-male fantasy, "Wedding Crashers."
If we are judged by the company we keep, McCain might have picked a different movie.
Hillary, meanwhile, casting herself as America's Mother Superior, has built a platform opposing video games that feature sex and violence. This time she's gone after something called a "mod" - or modification - to a popular game (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) that unlocks sexually explicit mini-games buried within the PC version.
Although this particular game is rated "mature" and not intended to be sold to anyone under 17, the mod can be viewed on the Internet. Clinton wants to find out who is responsible.
Thus has Clinton, in a lucky convergence of media moments, become Lucy to McCain's Charlie Brown. Exuding Miss Priss and oozing teacher's-pet smartness, she's managed to chip another chunk of the GOP's moral high ground, while one of her likeliest contenders for the 2008 presidential run is criticized for dubious judgment and questionable company.
For those who may have missed the movie trailers, "Wedding Crashers" is about two rakes who, looking for fresh fields to plow, crash weddings where nubile bridesmaids, primed with romance and lubricated with champagne, offer easy pickin's.
It's a cute idea, but the movie also features beaucoups bare breasts, under-the-table fondling and that always reliable icebreaker - a female-on-male rape scene. All in good fun, I hear. Thus far I've denied myself the great pleasure (I'm sure) of seeing the movie, but I've received eyewitness accounts from treasured sources, none of whom work in the White House and all of whose names are safe with me.
However innocuous his appearance, McCain might have resisted the temptation to become a Hollywood celeb and stuck with his image of centrist war hero. Not that his cameo amounted to much. He and Democratic consultant James Carville are shown attending a Washington, D.C., wedding. That's about it.
But American politics don't require much fodder to wage war in the frame game. McCain has handed a freebie to Democrats (as well as some embittered Republicans), who are delighting in portraying him as a hypocritical flip-flopper. It was McCain, after all, who once held hearings criticizing Hollywood for making R-rated movies aimed at children.
Now, he's in a film that clearly registers high on the raunch-o-meter. And, even though "Wedding Crashers" is rated R, kids want to see anything starring funny guys Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn.
The hypocrisy charge may not hold, as McCain's focus at those hearings was on violence, not sex. Even so, every public relations strategist lives by the caveat "Get outta the frame," when you're about to be photographed and frozen in human memory with the wrong person or circumstance. Think Bill Clinton and the beret-wearing Monica Lewinsky.
McCain might have thought this one through, if he even bothered to read the script. Forevermore - or at least through the 2008 presidential race - he'll be associated with the diddling class. "Bosoms McCain."
Hillary's image, meanwhile, glistens with virtue. As she edges toward the center, she's landed on a win-win issue. No one beyond the apparently swelling ranks of pedophiles would argue that children should be exposed to sex and violence in video games or anywhere else.
As she said a few days ago, the video industry has had enough time to police itself and has failed. Clinton is speaking the language of parents, most of whom try valiantly to protect their children from age-inappropriate material and have learned that being vigilant in one's home is not enough.
Thus, Clinton is seeking legislative solutions. In addition to her inquiry into "mods," she also has joined two archconservative Republican senators, Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback (as well as Democrat Joe Lieberman), in seeking $90 million for research into how media violence via television, videos games and the Internet affects children.
Clinton, in other words, owns this message. She has staked herself out as the grown-up, a mature leader, the adult parent who can be trusted to protect children. And, as Lucy did repeatedly for Charlie Brown, she is demonstrating that when boys will be boys, girls will take charge.