Image Hillary Clinton's cleavage-revealing outfit was big news last week - even if the revealed area was small by current standards. Mrs. Clinton - now being pursued for casting in the new reality show Pols Gone Wild - was slightly more décolleté, shall we say, than your average senator. This prompted the Washington Post's Robin Givhan to write a fashion critique, calling the outfit a "small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity" and saying it was "not unseemly" - just the equivalent of a man's unzipped fly. (Damned with faint praise, as it were.)

The effect of the article - if not the outfit - on the public was eye-popping. Thousands of angry letters - mostly from women - poured in, busting the Post's chops for the article's tastelessness. It seems the scolds who warned about Elvis's pelvis and Britney's bellybutton are still out there.

The cleavage shot quickly shot round the world. (Hottentots in Africa and seal-hunting Inuits know all about it.) Even the Times of India carried the story, noting that most letters expressed outrage that the Post had concentrated on Mrs. Clinton's neckline instead of her foreign policy (by the Post ombudsman's own account).

The story was helped considerably by the Clinton campaign. In a fund-raising e-mail, top Clinton campaign official Ann Lewis wrote, "Would you believe that The Washington Post wrote a 746-word article on Hillary's cleavage? Frankly, focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting... to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting."

Well, as grandpa used to say, "If you don't want it looked at, Toots, cover it up." Washington Times Editor Wesley Pruden inferred that Miz Hillary had dressed like an "authentic" woman, instead of trying to disguise herself as a man in a business suit, so other Democratic candidates would back off and not attack her politics. He also cited an apparent reader double standard, noting that earlier roastings by Miss Givhan of Rudi Giuliani's combed-over bald spot and Dick Cheney's rumpled suits generated only chuckles from readers. "But when she stepped into Hillary's cleavage, the high dudgeon flew off the charts," wrote Mr. Pruden.

I often sit outside Al's coffee shop and watch the parade of teenagers - and older wannabe teenagers - wiggling by, dressed in low-cut jeans that show their underwear and low-cut tops that show astonishing cleavage. I like sitting outside on a fine day, and, of course, the sight is diverting. Only guys already dead could fail to notice, although some of those babes would bring a fence post to life.

Teenaged girls, in fact, dress that way to get noticed. Their attire is like a neon sign flashing, "Look at ME!" At a certain level, it succeeds. Lots of people look at them because they are fun to look at. But we're not considering any of them for president.

A sixty-something female senator who is running for president adopts teenagers' exposed-cleavage style because...well, why does she? For the same reason. Standing on a platform with male presidential candidates - all dressed in identical dark business suits - Hillary Clinton's semi-daring, décolleté outfit blazes like a brightly lit billboard at night. "I am woman," it roars. "I am special." Not only won't male opponents lay a rhetorical glove on her - as Mr. Pruden says - but all attention instantly focuses on her. SHE becomes the event - not just an item in the news, but all of the news. This is the Clinton Way, as we should know very well by now.

Was this really an unintentional error by the Clinton campaign? - a campaign in which nothing is left to chance; where everything is scripted and oh-so-carefully arranged, down to the last gesture, posture, hairstyle, fingernail and plucked eyebrow. Are we to believe that a daring fashion statement like this was somehow just an oversight? That Hillary Clinton (and her handlers) simply didn't realize that her half-exposed bosom would ignite a huge social and political controversy? Please.

The incident was expressly designed to knock the other candidates off the front page and put Hillary Clinton (and her cleavage) there. She would rock the house with her outfit and rock the world with her stronger- and smarter-than-thou policies. The country is ready for a red-hot mama to take the White House, and she is ready to be and do it.

There was a small miscalculation along the way, however. It turns out that large numbers of American voters like their presidents (and candidates) to be more mature and conventional in their deportment and dress. Senator John Kerry got the horselaugh (the kiss of death in presidential campaigns) when he dressed up in hunting drag and tried to look like the Great White Duck Hunter.

If you watch too much TV, you could get the idea that professional women in offices, classrooms and courtrooms actually dress like... well, like hookers. But they don't - not if they want to be taken seriously. A good-looking female corporate or government executive - if she's smart - keeps the goods covered up, no matter how hot she is. TV district attorneys and lawyers are fun to look at, but real life isn't a movie.

Today I saw a news clip of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) with several of her colleagues. The most beautiful senator in U. S. history looked sensational. Her brilliant red outfit was impeccable, but everything was covered up that should have been. Check out the way Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice dresses - beautifully, without fail, but always tasteful and decorous, as she confers with all those foreign officials. Ditto for various female heads of state, world-wide - some of them quite beautiful. Nary an exposed cleavage to be seen.

Was Hillary Clinton going after the young teen-girls' vote? Or assuring the baggy-pants, exposed butt-crack crowd that she was one of them? Or was she just feeling frisky that day? Historians will be discussing those and other questions for years to come.

Hillary's daring cleavage-moment will, I predict, become the "primal scream" of her campaign - like the literal, on-camera scream that wrecked Howard Dean in 2004. Try as they might to ignore it, so many media outlets will simply be unable to resist showing that shot of Mrs. Clinton over and over, as though she were auditioning for Baywatch. It could turn out to be the moment when she lost the presidency.