When I ask people about their most vivid memories of 1998, they usually tell me about junior high-school dances, Furby, Leonardo DiCaprio or the Backstreet Boys. That’s funny. Didn’t our president get caught with another woman? Didn’t we impeach him? If anything, Bill Clinton is more popular now than ever. Why else would his shrill, shifty wife be leading in the polls for Democratic presidential nominees?

Anyway, I bring this up because my boy Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, has been naughty in a way that makes gossip rags howl with similar delight.

As many of you have heard by now, two weeks ago Newsom admitted to having an affair in 2005 with his appointments secretary, Ruby Rippey-Tourk. That’s strike one. But who is this oddly named mistress? Well, she happens to be the wife of Alex Tourk, who, at the time, was the mayor’s deputy chief of staff and re-election campaign manager. Ouch. Big-time betrayal.

But that’s not all! Last week, Newsom admitted to having a drinking problem and entered into rehab. And oh, what a drinking problem it is. If publicly soused dinners with his girlfriend in North Beach aren’t embarrassing enough, you have my personal favorite, getting wasted at a holiday party before arriving at San Francisco General Hospital to pay his respects for a fallen police officer.

Naughty, naughty, Newsom. Next, you’re going to tell me this story involves a male hooker and a severed ear. I’ve also heard rumors that the man’s a notorious swinger, but there’s no proof that I can see other than maybe his co-ownership of the MatrixFillmore bar. It’s the place with the tables shaped as the letters “S,” “E,” and “X.”

I like Gavin Newsom, though, as much as I enjoy poking fun at his recent foibles. The true conflict in this scandal is weighing the mayor’s improprieties against a remarkably good record and overwhelming support in the polls. Recently, Newsom was voted by Time magazine as one of the five best mayors in America.

The real question is what will happen three years from now, when we have the next gubernatorial election. Current speculation is that the Democratic ticket will boil down to a race between Newsom and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Both have been hyped as bringers of new life to the decrepit California Democratic Party.

But with a scandal like this, should our Golden State expect school-conquering Tony V. to gain the upper hand? Maybe some of you find this to be a good thing. I don’t necessarily, because, again, I like Newsom. Regardless of whether I agree with him or not, he has guts. I like that he challenged gay marriage laws. I like that he approved the San Francisco Health Access Plan for the 2007-08 budget, which provides universal health care, even if that’s going to be a bitch to pay for. I can even tolerate his haircut, which looks as if he styles it with a bottle of Pennzoil.

That’s why I await anxiously to see how people outside of San Francisco react. Will scandal bring him down as it did Gray Davis or Gary Hart?

I’m also of the opinion that this scandal has been somewhat blown out of proportion. Yes, he had an affair with his campaign manager’s wife, but let’s examine this more closely. The reported liaison happened in late 2005. Newsom’s divorce wasn’t finalized until December of that year and it was filed in January. That means that Newsom had no technical obligation to be faithful to his wife, right? They were done with each other by that point! Granted, macking on the campaign manager’s wife violates Man Law #7, but what the hell, nobody’s perfect.

And through this whole thing, one thought keeps my hope alive: Not all scandals ruin careers. After all, there is one former mayor who went through an ugly divorce while in office and is now on his third wife. This man is so well-liked that he’s now gunning for the top spot among potential Republican presidential candidates. You might know him as Rudolph Giuliani.

Finish your rehab, Newsom, and don’t let us pesky newspaper columnists get to you. It ain’t over yet.