WITH SO MUCH UNFAVORABLE news surrounding President Bush, conservative talk hosts are increasingly resorting to diversionary tactics — a favorite being to target liberal Hollywood stars as a means of changing the subject.

Yet if the right’s guard dogs have taken political cover by bashing Hollywood, several TV dramas have found equally fertile plots by filtering Washington’s failings and foibles through a fun-house mirror.

Indeed, real politicians look pretty pallid compared with the fictional ones on TV, who can be divided into two distinct categories: Officials grappling with tough decisions who stirringly behave more ethically than their real-life counterparts; or those who fulfill our worst suspicions about political abuse of power.

These situations, of course, are exaggerated for dramatic effect. The fact that they resonate at all, however, doubtless speaks to the public’s frayed trust in institutions — including the media — and an image of unprincipled leaders who aren’t above all manner of shenanigans in the name of political expediency.

CONSIDER THIS STELLAR final season of “The West Wing,” where candidates Santos and Vinick have frequently been presented with venal, crassly self-serving options and invariably selected the noble path. No demanding recounts or withholding damaging information for political gain. And when the two met for a televised debate, they improbably tossed out the rulebook and engaged in a real exchange of ideas, not the numbing platitudes we’ve come to expect.

If Aaron Sorkin’s creation was initially an exercise in liberal wish fulfillment — a Democratic administration populated by a committed staff, led by a president without a malfunctioning zipper — the latest incarnation depicts a Republican and Democrat both worthy of admiration, though given that neither much resembles any recent candidate, still very much a fantasy.

Occupying the same space, albeit at a lower orbit, is ABC’s “Commander in Chief,” which returns Thursday with an episode where the “First Gentleman” is caught in a compromising situation with an intern. Turns out it’s because he tripped, not because he was straying. Next week, meanwhile, the president faces having a cabinet nominee become a liability because of a sleazy campaign to smear him, raising the question of whether she’ll cut and run or wage a principled fight to defend him. Guess which route she chooses?

Even “24,” historically a tacit supporter of the “Anything goes, including torture” approach to waging the war against terrorism, has abandoned the right this season — its story hinging on a sniveling, Nixonian commander in chief involved in a covert scheme to consolidate power. At least the show hasn’t shown President Logan clearing brush on his ranch.

Finally, there’s the other half of Fox’s “Don’t Trust the White House” Monday lineup, “Prison Break,” which not only incorporated an Abu Ghraib-type incident into a flashback episode but which features an evil, conniving U.S. vice president who appears to be operating as a wholly owned subsidiary of big oil.

GRANTED, the requirements of serialized drama are an imperfect tool for paralleling reality. Nevertheless, spending these last few months on the mud-free campaign trail with Santos and Vinick has surely provided political junkies a welcome respite from the day’s headlines, where the Bush administration stands accused of doling out once-classified intelligence to protect its political flanks and straight-shooting Senator John McCain has pandered to the GOP’s conservative base so blatantly that he actually went on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” to endure a not-so-friendly grilling about it.

If nothing else, this current crop of series also reminds us, to paraphrase “Annie Hall,” how fiction can be thoroughly satisfying when it improves upon reality. And at least if the audience grows weary of these made-up politicians, they don’t have to wait four years to TiVo-te them out of office.

PAYOLA SIX: Speaking of possible ethical breaches, having absorbed the gleeful coverage of New York Post contributor Jared Paul Stern’s alleged “protection” plan, these thoughts keep coming to mind: $100,000 to stay out of the tabloid’s gossip column? Hell, I occasionally feel guilty about letting someone expense lunch. File that under “Reasons I’ll never be rich, No. 132.”

Also, have people learned nothing from the Jack Abramoff scandal? Never trust anyone under 50 who wears a hat.

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