One of the most painful assignments for a journalist is to watch Washington's best and brightest act out their self-destructive passions in public.

John and Charlotte Fedders performed their catholic ritual of absolution in a Montgomery County divorce court recently, confessing the violent collapse of their marriage before God and a Wall Street Journal reporter.

If Fedders had not been the director of the Division of Enforcement of the Securities and Exchange Commission -- arguably the most important business regulator in Washington -- what went on in that courtroom would not have been news.

But he was and it is and that is the first lesson of the Fedders tragedy.

Theirs is a tale of the changing mores of Washington business. It provides powerful, painful answers to the question of when personal behavior transcends gossip to become grist for public debate.

The answer, of course, depends on who you are. When you are a prominent law enforcement executive whose effectiveness depends heavily on the moral suasion of your office, any transgression that impunes your character is news. A sin as serious as wife beating will cost you your job.

The Journal told the story in the context of two other problems faced by Fedders -- an investigation of political payoffs by Southland Corp, one of his former clients, and the growing burden of debt he has accumulated since he joined the SEC.

Fedders took a $100,000-a-year pay cut to go to work for the government, giving up a $159,000-a-year partnership in the prestigious law firm of Arnold & Porter for a $59,000-a-year job.

But there was little pretense of public service in Fedders' motivation, according to the testimony of family and friends. He took the SEC job because it furthered his personal ambitions, because it would make him -- as he once put it -- a "doyen of the securities bar" who could bring home $400,000 a year once he returned to private practice.

Even in a city where it is well understood that a turn in government will be rewarded in the afterlife of private employment, we rarely hear such cynical views of public service. In this, too, is a lesson that ought not to be forgotten.

To pay for punching his ticket through the revolving door of the Reagan Administration, Fedders turned to deficit spending. The idea of a public official mortgaging his career raises serious issues that have not been answered. To whom was he beholden? Did the debts leave him vulnerable to economic pressure? Could he have been forced by the burden of debt to leave his job in a lurch to return to more lucrative employment?

From the divorce court records we know the Fedders family was spending twice as much money as he made some years. They were forced to sell a farm in Virginia to pay bills, to borrow from relatives and to start shopping at discount stores. Despite all the intimate embarrassments revealed on the public record, many financial records remain under seal. Apparently the money problems compounded the marital problems. When the marriage broke, it all came down to how much he could pay. That's what got them into court. Divorce lawyers will draw their own conclusions from that.

Fedders' financial problems were eclipsed by the umbra of allegations that he had beaten his wife. When the shadows darkened into an admission of seven violent episodes, the divorce became news.

But even before last week, Wall Street was whispering about the Fedders divorce. That lesson has largely been ignored in the aftermath of The Wall Street Journal story that cost him his job: John Fedders' credibility already was suffering because of what was heard on the street.

Wife beating is the sort of slanderous gossip against which there is no defense. Honorable people might disagree over the importance of Fedders' involvement in the Southland bribery case or his financial problems, but nobody can find any justification for domestic violence.

The gossip was repeated in Washington as well. The story was out in the regulatory community. Journalists knew. Staff members of congressional committees that work with the SEC heard it. The committee chairmen heard it. The White House not only heard the gossip but read the specifics in Charlotte Fedders' own words.

Yet not a one of them said or did anything to suggest they recognized that John Fedders' dark side was beginning to undermine his effectiveness as a public official. The claim that nothing was done because hitting his wife did not affect his official duties is hogwash.

Women will use another word: sexism. Ask any women under the age of 40 why government officials tolerated wife beating and they'll tell you. It was the old-boy network, the boys taking care of their own, another tawdry example of the macho mentality of Washington.

There is an inescapable element of truth in that charge, but there is more to it. It is not just sexual peccadillos and perversions that get covered up in this town. The pols will protect their own, now matter what they do. Alcoholics go untreated for years, because we pretend to ignore their disease. Drug abusers stay stoned until some embarrassment brings Betty Ford to their rescue.

Character has somehow lost its cachet as a requisite for public office in Washington. That is the most embarrassing lesson of the Fedders tragedy.

There is one final thing that should be remembered about John Fedders. He was a damn good enforcement director. He professionalized the management of the division and bolstered its resources with greater accounting skills. He pursued insider-trading cases with innovative diligence and invaded the sanctuary of Swiss bank accounts. He tackled corporate wrongdoing fearlessly, undeterred by political connections or philosophies.

While others in the administration used the Regean theme of deregulation to weaken enforcement of the law, Fedders demonstrated that tough regulation could benefit the free market. As former SEC member Bevis Longstreth put it, Chairman "John Shad's best decision was in selecting John Fedders."

That is what makes the Fedders story so tragic.