ONE point was clear in the ordeal-by-Senate-hearing of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: No controversy over Judge Thomas's legal views would ever match the nation-absorbing power of a scandal over his personal behavior.Whoever was telling the truth, however one weighs the gravity of the behavior Anita Hill described, such scandals compel so much attention, pack such explosive media power, that they sometimes seem to carry the only political vitality Americans have left. Suzanne Garment, a former political columnist at the Wall Street Journal, wrote her level-headed new book, "Scandal: The Crisis of Mistrust in American Politics," before the Thomas confirmation. But it ably paints that drama into a larger picture. Scandal, large and small, has moved to the very center of American politics, she argues. Scandal has always been with us, and the book includes a brief history of how Americans handled earlier ignominies. But the past 15 years, according to Garment, have seen unprecedented numbers of scandals erupt in national politics. Politicians are not sleazier or more corrupt than in the past. Rather, standards have changed. Some of today's scandals would have attracted little interest 20 years ago. For example, the extensive use of government planes and cars for personal travel by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu provoked weeks of outrage last spring. "Such behavior would simply not have been controversial in the pre-Watergate era," Garment writes. Standards have changed, but they have not necessarily risen on any scale of moral maturity, and Garment certainly does not believe they are furthering the cause of good government. Instead, the mistrust of politics and government that began during the Vietnam era and reached full bloom in Watergate has become pervasive. Further, it has become institutionalized. A vast scandal-seeking machinery has grown up: government watchdog agencies, public-interest advocacy organizations, congressional staffs, the news media, and independent counsels. Thousands of careers and powerful institutions are now built for rooting out ethical lapses and the appearance thereof. In the soul of this machinery, as Garment describes it, is the suspicion that traditional, horsetrading, compromising politics is at root an immoral, possibly criminal, enterprise. The result is bad for government. Born of a politics of mistrust, scandals breed ever more mistrust of politics and politicians, alienating citizens further. Talented people see the growing constraints of public life and avoid government work. Scandals crowd more substantive but duller business from the public agenda. "We have built ourselves a system that knows how to create a public outcry over even the appearance of an appearance of a conflict of interest but could not get itself interested in the policy sins that underlay our savings and loan crisis until Charles Keating had personalized it for us," she writes. In the same way, tens of millions of dollars have been spent pursuing charges against Oliver North without addressing the problems in the political system that led to the Iran-contra affair. Garment's points are best made in cases where the scandal machinery ground up its targets without ever successfully pinning a rap on them. She has horror stories of officials who come under suspicion, then seem to clear themselves, only to face month after month and sometimes years of further inquiries as the machinery grinds on. She does not suggest that scoundrels be tolerated, but she does suggest that the zeal for hounding out even the appearance of impropriety has a cost. She clearly believes that there is something mindless about the modern Puritanism that has infused politics. "Scandal" makes its best case on how wrong the US political system has gone. It has less to say about how to judge the seriousness of any given scandal. Her picture of scandal politics may be accurate, for example, but that does not tell us how to weigh the allegations against now-Justice Thomas or how to gauge the gravity of Mr. Sununu's travel extravagances. She offers a general standard: "Scandals in government are good if they expose abuses, lead to correction, and thus increase citizens' confidence in public authority." That standard may be too lax. Major abuses of power need to be exposed even when correction and increased public confidence are nowhere in sight. But "Scandal" argues persuasively that public skepticism of politics and politicians needs some redirecting toward the scandal-making machinery itself. If Garment sometimes seems to be brushing off the ethical lapses of high officials, it may be only because she is attempting to introduce some proportion into the realm of absolutes. The road to moral maturity may lie, after all, beyond ethics.