He still weeps whenever he smells lilacs, sweet with memories of his old Eastern Shore home and happier times there. But all that is a lifetime behind Robert Bauman now, nearly six years since he was forced to confront the homosexuality and alcoholism that destroyed his political career, wrecked his marriage and almost drove him to suicide.

"Conservatives can't accept the thinking that homosexuality is something that happens to you before you're 4 -- they think it's a matter of choice -- they think that I have chosen this," the former Republican congressman from Maryland says. "It's not a matter of choice. As I have said, if I could take a pill and change it I would. I'd rather have my family back."

Sitting in his Capitol Hill law office, Bauman, 49, is just three blocks from where he once held forth as a self-appointed watchdog of the House, tweaking liberals and wielding power through his mastery of arcane legislative rules; three blocks from the place where he spent more than 20 years as a page, an aide and later a member, and where in the end, FBI agents informed him that he was being charged with soliciting sex from a 16-year-old male nude dancer at a gay bar. Six months later, he was through.

What made it worse for Bauman was that he had always seemed to flaunt his righteousness, his religion, his conservatism. So when he fell, much of Washington smiled.

Today the arrogance and all the years of masquerading are gone. The glare of the summer sun meets diffident eyes as Bauman settles back in his old congressional chair to discuss -- somewhat reluctantly -- his new book, "The Gentleman From Maryland: The Conscience of a Gay Conservative."

*"I meant what I said in the foreword of the book -- that I wrote it because I needed the money," he says. "I didn't want to write this . . . People just want to know who you're sleeping with."

There is something sad about talking to this man in an office that so strongly evokes his congressional glory days. The key to Ocean City. A plaque from the Knights of Columbus. Glossy photos of the congressman with Nixon, Ford, Bush. Campaign shots of a happy husband, wife and four children. They seem to tell a story of great success, with no hint it would be unraveled by one too many indiscretions.

The book tells the rest of the story. From his political rise to his nights cruising Washington streets hunting for young male hustlers to the day his wife and children left him alone with his tears, Bauman's memoir is a remarkably explicit and draining account of his 30-year self-deception.

"Did I want to get caught? No, I didn't want to destroy my family, my children and my wife," he says. "I didn't want to destroy my career. But I definitely wanted this terrible thing inside of me dealt with.

"There were a few times when I was typing away and the tears started . . . I suppose I could have cloaked it in a lot more abstract language . . . But I had to make the case -- I was trying to convince myself, I guess, as I wrote the book, about a lot of things -- accepting my sexuality."

"The Gentleman From Maryland" paints a portrait of a boy who couldn't accept the death of the adoptive mother he loved, and who was quickly shipped off to military school by his adoptive father and stepmother. Bauman writes that he had his first homosexual experience before the age of 6, with a 12-year-old neighbor. At military school and later at camp, the warmth and affection he longed for seemed available only from other young men.

When Bauman married Carol Dawson in 1960, he had experienced sex only with men -- despite intermittent flirtations with girls as a teen-ager. Yet it had never occurred to him that he was a homosexual.

"It wasn't the conservative background that prevented him from facing it -- it was the horror of being gay," he says. "Until 1980, I had never read extensively about homosexuality. I avoided it. I didn't want to know. I was quite certain that it couldn't include me in that category."

Bauman was a young, married law student when he began picking up street hawkers. "There was no specific destination," he writes of his nocturnal drives. "My pattern never varied much. I'd drive around aimlessly hunting, looking for some young man, about my age, walking the street late at night . . . "

Once after class he picked up two hitchhikers who claimed to be looking for a "queer" bar. They led him to a place near the Anacostia River where they robbed and beat him, leaving him with a huge gash in his cheek to explain to his wife.

Unaccustomed to discussing such topics, however, Carol and Bob Bauman didn't actually face the situation until years later. He was in Congress by then, drinking heavily and showing up at Glebe House, their Easton, Md., estate, at all hours of the morning. Coming home from one such drunken escapade in early 1980, Bauman inadvertently left some gay magazines under the seat of his car. His wife found them, which was the beginning of the end of their marriage.

*Later, they had the marriage annulled, and Carol reassumed her maiden name. Currently a commissioner of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, she has refused to comment on the book. Robert Bauman would not talk about his ex-wife or children during the interview. The annulment, he says, helped make him start dealing with reality.

"It was the annulment and the reading of the tribunal's decree that really did it to me. I kept reading it and the words weren't there, but the grounds for the annulment were quite clear. The Catholic Church calls it a 'mistake of person,' a fundamental defect in the character of one of the parties in the marriage.

"So I kept rereading it. I asked the priest involved, 'Are you ruling in effect that I'm a homosexual?' He said, 'In part, those are grounds that were considered.' "

Robert Bauman doesn't ask for pity. In fact, he discourages it -- his own and others'. But to listen to him is to relive the pain of someone who has had great difficulty facing what he is.

There is no drama in his voice when he tells you how people have turned their backs on him, how he misses Congress, how he has few clients and little money.

The tone is still matter-of-fact when Robert Bauman says he wants to love someone, to know the intimacy of a close relationship in ways he never really has before. But ask him if he has trouble accepting that a relationship will have to be with another man, and his voice turns tentative.

"Yeah, I still have my conservative and traditional view of life and it is difficult in some sense to deal with that," he says. "But on the other hand . . . that's the way I am. It is the way I am. I am what I am.

"It's unfortunate that so many men have to cringe in terror that love will cause them to destroy their life or themselves, so they destroy their life or themselves without ever having that love or acceptance."

In a strange way, Bauman believes he owes his chance for self-realization and love to the chain of horrific events that brought his fall in 1980. Two months before he was expected to be reelected, he says, the FBI informed him he had been under surveillance for some time, and that U.S. Attorney Charles Ruff expected him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of soliciting. He agreed to the plea.

The following weeks were a haze of headlines and accusations, denials and pleas for forgiveness. There were demands that he drop out of the race and calls for his resignation from the board of the American Conservative Union, which he had helped found. A plethora of Bauman jokes began circulating.

He eventually gave a press conference fully admitting his alcoholism, but saying only that he had suffered from "homosexual tendencies." He insisted that he "did not consider" himself to be a homosexual. In November, he was defeated, though he drew 48 percent of the vote.

"Some of my friends have asked me if I had been reelected, would it have been the best thing," he says. "Because it would have been like a cure -- like Rep. Gerry Studds. You're cured . . . the electorate gave you a stamp of approval." But if he had not been defeated, Bauman believes, "I might not have been able to deal with this on an extensive, concentrated basis as I have for the last few years."

He realizes that his overconfident manner, and the way he had fashioned a national reputation by sniping at his opponents, made his debacle that much more notable. "A lot of people said it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," he says. "People who ride high and mighty, when they fall, they always fall harder. I had a righteousness. That's what bothered columnist Bill Buckley -- the self-righteous manner in which I presented my views. It was the basic contradiction."

(Bauman writes in the book that while Buckley, a friend, refused to kill a negative column about Bauman at the time, he did lend him $20,000 when Bauman's debts became unmanageable.)

After his defeat, Bauman immediately began psychiatric therapy, hoping he could be "cured." His family priest recommended celibacy, which he rejected. When his first therapist tried to suggest that he was gay, Bauman switched doctors.

*"I just told him I thought he was being a bad Catholic, that Father John Harvey the family priest was trying to help me get cured and why couldn't he do the same? So I broke off with him and he referred me to a Freudian psychiatrist who sat around puffing his pipe and saying nothing. Then I had another doctor who was quite good. He told me you have to accept the way things are."

Therapy or not, by early 1981, Bauman's wife informed him that she was leaving. That's when he briefly considered suicide. "It certainly was an option I considered," he says. "But I just didn't want to give the bastards the satisfaction. There was enough of the ego left in me to react that way."

One of the recurring themes in Bauman's book is his assertion that there are a lot of homosexuals in high places in Washington. "Indeed," he writes, "the closets of Washington are filled with gay Republicans, and gay conservatives. Many of them serve in high administration posts, some in the White House."

Bauman himself declared "Yes, I am gay" in a speech at an American Bar Association meeting in Atlanta three years ago, saying that he "could no longer remain silent in good conscience." But he says he is uncomfortable in a gay advocacy role, and sounds almost as though he regrets going public.

He was asked to make the ABA speech, he says, in "a vulnerable moment, and I had been through a couple of rejections for jobs in the administration and I said to myself, 'What the hell, I'll make the speech.' I think it was the inability for me to deal with the fact that I was out of it."

Liberal gay groups, he thinks, have little use for him because he remains conservative in his views on other social issues. "They want the whole ball of political wax. They want all the issues. It's not convenient to have somebody arguing for the right to life who says, 'Incidentally, I happen to be a homosexual.' "

In part because he makes both conservatives and liberals uncomfortable, Bauman believes, he finds himself in a kind of career limbo.

* "An ex-congressman with an expert knowledge of parliamentary procedures could be very useful to large corporations or law firms," he says. "I have trouble. But some sympathetic people have worked with me . . . I have no major clients, no continuing source of income. It isn't the easiest thing for people to deal with -- a friend who has been publicly labeled a homosexual. They don't understand it and they don't want to.

"I miss the Congress," he says. "I don't think my defeat was very good for Congress. I was a good congressman."

* He says he'll keep at it, though, and perhaps as time passes, so will people's memories.

He lives a relatively quiet life these days. He has friends -- not all gay, he points out -- and spends much time with his children. But no, he hasn't found someone to love.

"Not really," he says. "I think every person wants another person they can depend on, sort of let their hair down with. I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to be alone. In fact, it's quite disturbing for me to be alone. And sure, we all aspire to love someone and have them love you. But I guess I'm still sort of looking.

"I am a romantic. If it happens, it happens.