When I lived in Baltimore I dated for two years a rather wealthy, gentle and terribly nice man. When I tell you he's nice, I mean that once I received a long letter from a prisoner (the kind most reporters eventually get) which claimed, as most letters from prisoners do, that the author was completely innocent of all the crimes of which he'd been convicted.

The letter drove me crazy. I handed it around to all the reporters I knew, but they never checked it out. Finally I gave it to my friend, and he alone cared enough to investigate the prisoner's dilemma - and discovered, of course, that the man was as guilty as sin. Anyway, that's the kind of guy this man was.

He was also the kind of guy who drove a car made in only limited editions; a man who cheerfully dropped a few bucks at the race track each month. Bourgeois, sane. A catch, as I was constantly being reminded by the entire neighborhood.

After I moved to Washington, I heard little from him. Finally a friend phoned to tell me what was going on in his life. She told me he was in jail. That he'd pleaded guilty to mail fraud. Inflated bills that were ultimately submitted to insurance companies. White-collar stuff.

That was when I remembered some of the conversations my old friend and I had in Baltimore. We had been talking about bookies, and I must have looked askance, because he chuckled and shook his head at my gross naivete. Sure, he said, sure bookies were illegal; but they didn't hurt anyone really, except the person who was fool enough to place a bet with them. Really, a victimless crime.

I have always felt that in some strange way this man epitomized Baltimore to me. He was so much like a lot of the nice-middle-class, comfortable people I met when I was there. The man whose dinner party I attended who had once been convicted and jailed for embezzlement, only nobody talked about that. The man who was very apologetic to David Frost when he overheard me being rude to the TV star.

The man who was annoyed at me for being rude to David Frost is also rather a decent sort, kind and hospitable. In Baltimore you do not give visitors a hard time, even if they do happen to be speaking before a group that excluded women, which is what David Frost was doing. The man who was put out with me for being rude to a famous guest would later get caught up in the Spiro Agnew scandal. But then that's the way things are in Baltimore.

In Baltimore, a middle-aged man once told me he was prepared to fight a duel over his lady-love. And while that, strictly speaking, is not the way things are in Baltimore, still in's indicative of a prevailing tenacity. You hold onto things more tightly in Baltimore - your woman, your money, your standards. Especially your standards.

The word around Baltimore is that Spiro Agnew had his own standards. That when he was county executive, he always kept a little box on his desk into which he put money when he made personal long-distance phone calls. Eighty cents for a call to Ocean City, and so on.

In Baltimore there is morality and there is legality, and the two do not always interconnect. The most important thing you can have in that town is friends. Thre isn't much to do in Baltimore - there never has been - so you depend on your friends for everything. And they are the people you grew up with. People who move to Baltimore after high school are often quite miserable there, since the prevailing instinct is that only natives are to be trusted.

All this is by way of explaining the politicians of Baltimore and perhaps Marvin Mandel and his friends, who were also the people he grew up with.

"Marvin," says a former politico, "Marvin always had great tolerance for wrongdoing in others - and that was part of his power over them. He didn't have to do them a favor. He just had to keep his mouth shut. He was a regular guy.

"Marvin," this man continues, "never tells a lie if he can give you a misleading statement, instead. Did you listen carefully to what he said the other day?"

"He said he had not defrauded the people of Maryland. And in a way it's true. This was a victimless crime. Of course when you subvert the right of government to be in accordance with its own laws - that's the highest form of theft. But they don't see it that way."

There is a place, says this man, a place in Dante's Holl for the antipopes. In that place, the anti-popes are all standing on their heads - a fit punishment for those who have inverted their office.

But in Baltimore . . .no. . . they don't see it that way. In Baltimore, just about the worst thing you can do is fail your friends. "You may not believe TV's Lesley Stahl, "But some of my best friends aren't Jews." Aaron Latham who repeated that quotation in Playboy, also wrote. "He (Agnew) reportedly points out that many of those who gave evidence against him . . .were Jewish." They had once been his friends in Baltimore.

Whey you grow up female in Baltimore you often live with your parents until you marry. "Oh my," exclaimed a shocked 30-year-old matron to me not five years ago. "However did you manage to leave home without being married? I married young to get out of my parent's home."

Whey you marry in Baltimore, you often join a club. The myth is that one of its clubs was for some years open only to German Jews. Not Russian Jews or Polish Jews. Just German Jews. Whether or not the myth was once true, they do subdivide in Baltimore. Friends come in only limited quantities.

And when you're middl-aged in Baltimore, you often divorce because it seems a lot of life has passed you by; because age and experience have unveiled options you never knew were available. Rebellion comes late in Baltimore, and Marvin Mandel divorced and remarried the blonde lady in middle-age. In Baltimore there's a lot of talk that this was the beginning and the end of Marvin Mandel.

And perhaps it was. For in so doing Marvin Mandel offended not the laws of the United States - but the mores of his friends. The mores of his friends do not always happen to coincide with the laws of the United States. In Baltimore, as the old politico says, "A crime against an institution is not always perceived as a crime. Because the liability is so distributed." When Marvin Mandel divorced and remarried he did not distribute his liability.

Well, Marvin Mandel has just been convicted according to the laws of the rest of the nation. So was my old friend. But there are plenty of people in Baltimore who do not really believe these men have done anything ignoble.

"These men," says a political worker, "are essentially the measure of people's expectations here."

What, after all, did they offend? Institutions.

I remember one of those Baltimore nights when there wasn't a whole lot to do. My friend and I drove to a lonely road outside of town. He reveved up his engine and we sped down that road at 150 miles an hour.

It was that kind of night. It was that kind of town. It was the most exciting thing I ever did in Baltimore.

And it was a victimless crime.