IN SEPTEMBER 1980, Robert Bauman seemed to be sitting on top of the world. As he puts it, "At the tender age of 43 I had reached a pinnacle of success few would have ever predicted for me and certainly I would have never predicted for myself."

The Republican's election to a fifth term in the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland's First District seemed assured. He had what appeared to be a perfect marriage and four bright, attractive children. The family lived in an historic house near Easton, Md., in the heart of his Eastern Shore district. Increasingly, he was viewed by his congressional peers as less of a conservative gadfly and nitpicker and more as a serious leader of the New Right. But behind this squeaky-clean facade of the righteous right, Bauman lived another life, a life of personal torment and shame that led him compulsively to cruise the sleazy demimonde of Washington's gay bars, seeking brief homosexual encounters with male prostitutes.

Bauman's nocturnal adventures were preceded and accompanied by massive drinking bouts that had left him a confirmed alcoholic. The drinking had become, as he puts it, "a catalyst for sexual conduct" of a type he couldn't admit to when he was sober.

On Sept. 3, 1980, Bauman arrived at his congressional office to find two FBI agents waiting for him. It was the beginning of the disintegration of his life as he had known it up to that time. Charged with the misdemeanor of "solicitation for prostitution," he was given a six-months suspended sentence, but the publicity cost him much more. "In 30 days," he writes, "I had gone from a respected national figure to a scandal-smeared, defeated politician." It also cost him his marriage and his home and plunged him into what is apparently a continuing financial crisis.

Bauman says he was reluctant to write this book ("I wrote it because I need the money"), but whatever his reluctance he has candidly, perhaps courageously, bared his soul, revealing his innermost thoughts in his struggle against his twin compulsions of alcoholism and furtive homosexuality. In some ways, this is more a confession than an autobiography. Bauman describes in detail, probably more detail than most readers would want, his secret homosexual life from his first childhood encounter through the events that led to his downfall. While the book is filled with self-analysis, it is remarkably free of self-pity.

In fact, Bauman's life emerges as less of a Greek tragedy than an account of a man's struggle to know himself. The cost is high -- his career, his family life and his financial security -- but he seems to have been successful in coming to terms with the forces within himself. Ironically, weeks prior to the FBI agents' visit to his office, Bauman had admitted his alcoholism for the first time, had quit drinking and had sought psychiatric help for his homosexuality, still believing he could be "cured" of his "tendency."

FOR BAUMAN, who converted to Catholicism as a teen ager, his Catholic faith "helped me through some of the darkest days of my life" despite the "gross disparity between my personal conduct and the requirements of my chosen religion."

"The true paradox," he writes, "lies in the fact that the gay, more than the non-gay person, desperately needs a greater dimension of spirituality simply in order to survive." The church's position on homosexuality essentially says that homosexual inclination is morally neutral but that homosexual activity is always a sin.

Bauman suggests that the Catholic Church and other religious institutions should "thoroughly reexamine their position towards homosexuals if the existence and purpose of the church is to have any true meaning." He does not, however, suggest how the church should modify its position to make it more just to practicing homosexuals or how it could justify condemning extra-marital sex among heterosexuals while condoning homosexual activities.

An obvious question that arises as one reads of Bauman's reckless nocturnal excursions to his favorite gay haunts is why a man as intelligent, cunning and politically astute as Bauman would have allowed himself to take such risks. "Why indeed?" Bauman himself asks in the book.

"But long before any public revelation came the repeated brushes with private discovery. Looking back now I can see the numerous instances when my conduct, which I thought carefully discreet, was really designed to reveal to someone, anyone, what was happening to me. Perhaps my unconscious conclusion was that someone else must deal with the chaos of my life because I was rapidly reaching the point at which I could not do it myself."

Just as obvious a question is why did the FBI and the Justice Department choose to make such a big deal out of the sexual peccadilloes of this congressman? Certainly alcohol abuse and sexual excesses are no strangers in the corridors of power in Washington.

Bauman insists that "there are many men in leading positions of power who are homosexuals and yet appear regularly in the media as the leaders of our nation . . . They serve in Congress, the Reagan administration and White House, the judiciary, military, and Washington power circles." For Bauman, the decision was political, designed to discredit him just weeks before the election and to prevent his growing popularity from making him an eventual opponent to Maryland's Democratic U.S. senator, Paul Sarbanes. "Obviously," Bauman writes, "some one person or persons within the Carter administration made a calculated decision to finger me for action."

Bauman's picture of himself before his downfall is not a flattering one. He appears to have been vain, self-centered, and arrogant. But the picture that emerges as we read through Bauman's deeply intimate soul-searching is one of a man who has faced adversity and finally come to grips with himself.

"Violent public exposure of my secret life forced me to eventual acceptance of my sexual nature and slowly I am coming to terms with myself," he writes. "What I seek now is stability, peace, the possibility of mutual love, all goals which for the gay person are difficult in the extreme to obtain. But that is so for almost everyone, isn't it?"

Edgar Miller is the former executive editor of the Catholic Standard and former managing editor of the Chattanooga Times.