How dare modesty raise her prudish head in our bikinied and thong-clad culture? But that’s exactly what happened when aides to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft modestly curtained semi-nude metal statues in the Great Hall at the Department of Justice.

In the past, drapes shielded these tall art-deco exhibitionists during formal ceremonies and were later removed. But now, with increased press activity related to Sept. 11, the curtains stay put.

The Spirit of Justice, in her peekaboo toga, proves too tempting for a cadre of mischievous photographers. They occasionally sprawl on the floor to capture Ashcroft in the same frame with the bare-bosomed aluminum lady.

And besides, who concentrates on judicial issues when the attorney general is upstaged by two enormous nudes? The common-sense solution (“for TV aesthetics,” according to spokeswoman Barbara Comstock) was to cover them up so attention focuses on speeches, not scenery.

But soon after this pragmatic modesty, the sniggering began.

“Uptight male,” “ferociously religious, wildly troubled, sexless” and “a case of pathological prudery” were among the jabs at Ashcroft. One pundit went so far as to say that draping the statues reflected “body shame, a form of self-loathing,” a comment that echoes George Bernard Shaw’s in “Man and Superman”: “We are ashamed of our naked skin.”

As I recall, a few conniving cads used that line while trying to talk me out of my clothes 35 years ago in college.

The same guys must still be around, now making wisecracks on a national level. And they would still have us believe modesty is the unfortunate residue of our puritanical past. Not so.

Modesty, mirabile dictu, is normal – even instinctive.

I bought into the anti-modesty mantra as a ’60s wild-child wannabe. I thought my reluctance to peel was evidence of 12 years of prep-school propriety. Even our university elitists preached that modesty was the affected throwback to Victorianism.

Clothing was optional for what Desmond Morris called “naked apes.” So, we ignored biblical recommendations that we employ “modest and discreet dress.” How pass?.

We read the likes of libertine Katherine Mansfield who wrote, “How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up like a rare, rare fiddle?” Proverbial campus clich? Khalil Gibran said, “Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your body and less of your raiment.” (Huh?)

Childrearing eventually set me straight. Anyone with kids knows modesty sprouts naturally – though it hit our house unexpectedly. Initially, I purposed never to superimpose modesty. Our naked apes would benefit from my ’60s mentality. Theirs would be a bucolic youth, unlike my straight-laced childhood.

Little woods nymphs cavorted around the backyard unfettered by clothes. Afternoon mud pies landed brother, sister and neighboring tots in the tub together, with no embarrassment amidst the bubbles.

But at age 7, our son slammed the bathroom door. If I peeped in, he announced with unrehearsed indignation, “Do you mind? I’m naked!” Soon after, our daughter followed suit, as did the other children in their cohort.

“Modesty is the conscience of the body,” wrote Balzac.

“There is an innate modesty in children. Once we become self-aware, we become modest,” says Jeffrey Murrah, licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, Texas. “But among the sophisticated, modesty isn’t hip.”

In her book, “A Return to Modesty: Discovering a Lost Virtue,” Williams College graduate Wendy Shalit laments, “The attack on modesty is so complete, if you do happen to hear it discussed at all in academic circles … it is treated as a kind of joke.”

“We cannot do without limits,” says National Public Radio commentator Katherine Kersten, chairman of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. “However, to speak positively of modesty today is to invite hoots of derision from those trying to show how cosmopolitan they are.”

And thanks to the Justice Department’s curtained sculptures, we are hearing derisive hoots – hoots and hypocrisy.

While Leno, Letterman, Brokaw and Couric poke fun at the nation’s new drapes, they all benefit from a self-same modesty. Not one of them uses statuesque nudes for backdrops during broadcasts.

Why should John Ashcroft?

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