The jokes had worked before. In the same kind of room. On just such an occasion.

The last time Capt. Ernie Blanchard took the floor at a Bravo Company dinner, back in 1981, his audience of U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets, honored guests and fellow officers ended up bursting into "God Bless America." The spontaneous sing-along followed his rousing speech, which followed his opening jokes, which 14 years later, on a January night in 1995 in New London, Conn., seemed to be getting mostly nervous laughs.

Then only a few embarrassed titters.

Then silence.

Blanchard moved on. The speech proved more reliable: a few sea stories, then a stirring summons to Coast Guard life delivered with the passion that few in the small, proud service could summon more impressively than this true believer, the genial, driven man his friends called "Supercharged." The applause was big, and in the morning Blanchard made the journey back to his Washington job as the Coast Guard's chief spokesman with no sense that his career was over, let alone his life.

Blanchard's failed jokes -- dated, unfunny and, worst of all, sexual -- bobbed in his wake. Some people in the mixed audience had taken offense. When Blanchard learned this, he immediately fired off a letter of apology. It was read to all of Bravo Company, a four-stripe captain abject before academy cadets.

It wasn't enough.

Elsewhere on campus, a movement was afoot for something more. The issue was pressed hardest by people who were not at the dinner, and it crested in a direct threat to headquarters, a threat to bring the event out in the open, out of the military, into the media. The threat produced the desired result: an official, top-level investigation into whether Blanchard's remarks constituted sexual harassment.

The captain was read his rights. Twelve days later, before the investigation was complete, he put a revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Blanchard, 46, career military man, husband and father of a teenage son and daughter, a man with no history of emotional problems, took his life certain that he was about to be sacrificed by a Coast Guard determined to show it could never produce a Tailhook. By those final days, Blanchard was not always sounding rational. Yet in the end the investigating officer concluded exactly what Blanchard predicted he would, that a dozen crude jokes told to 117 people constituted willful sexual harassment.

The strongest evidence of intent would be cited both by his critics and by his supporters. It was Blanchard's first few words, directed not to the audience but to the dear friend who had introduced him.

"Request permission to dispense with political correctness," Blanchard began. From that mo ment on, he was done for. Ernie Blanchard, lifelong military man, had made an inexcusable tactical blunder.

At the lectern, he began telling dirty jokes.

As any stand-up comic can tell you, when you start something like that, there is no turning back.

He was dying up there. Parallel Lines

This is about a death by political correctness. Whether it was suicide by political correctness or homicide by political correctness depends on your point of view. What no one disputes is that it resulted from a catastrophic breakdown of rationality.

Ernie Blanchard's death came 14 months before the much more highly publicized suicide of Adm. Jeremy M. "Mike" Boorda, the Navy's chief of operations, who took his life amid allegations that he had worn combat medals he hadn't earned. The deaths have certain parallels. Both men were terrified of exposure in the media. Each man feared he would bring disrepute to a service where he had spent his adult life. Each man was operating under what, to many outside the military, might seem a bewilderingly unforgiving code of honor and rectitude.

The Boorda case, however, arguably involved errors of hubris and self-aggrandizement. The Blanchard case did not. However ineptly, Ernie Blanchard was basically just trying for a laugh. What Was Said . . .

The story is unfolding now, more than a year after Blanchard's death, because the Coast Guard has only this past spring published its 800-page report on the case. It chronicles a death that everyone agrees should not have happened -- a penalty wildly disproportionate to the offense. And yet there is much in the document that remains unclear. Not the least of which is precisely what jokes Blanchard told before this audience of officers, educators and cadets ranging from fourth-class freshmen to graduating seniors, or "firsties."

Capt. Stillman and his bride had quite a honeymoon. On their wedding night she put on a sexy negligee, snuggled up close and in a very shy voice said, "Dear, now that we're married, can I do anything that I want?" He replied, "Yes, dear, anything you want." . . . So she immediately went to sleep!

I saw two Bravo Company firsties at a pickup joint on a road trip. Two underclass were in the same joint and one said to the other, "What's the difference between garbage and a Bravo Company firstie? The garbage gets picked up!"

At a reception I encountered a Bravo Company firstie and his fiancee. His fiancee was wearing a diamond brooch with several signal flags surrounding it. I complimented her on the brooch, and she said that her fiance had given it to her and the flags meant, "I love you." I decided to take a closer look. . . . They really said, "Permission granted to lay alongside."

These jokes are not in dispute. Many people remembered them. Blanchard admitted them. They were on 3-by-5 cards he had used. Five of the dinner guests, however, recall another joke, which Blanchard later denied having said: Two cadets are necking in a car when the male cadet, seeing a police car approach, sighs, "Oh shoot, the fuzz." And his date says, "What were you expecting, an Afro?"

One joke that probably was not told was this one, which one attendee remembered hearing but others did not. It was the joke that circulated widely on the campus in the days after the dinner, and was the only joke cited in a memo to the investigator from the Coast Guard's minority policy adviser, who was not at the dinner and who heard it from someone else who was not at the dinner.

How do you tell a male from a female cadet after dark on the training ship Eagle? By the bulge in their pants.

A substantial portion of the 106 cadets who make up Bravo Company were female, as were at least two of the handful of invited guests. They had assembled in the academy's Old Wardroom in dress uniform two days into the winter term for the company dinner. Blanchard had been the main attraction.

He was "Mr. Coast Guard," a charismatic speaker with a reputation for knowing how to work an audience. Years earlier when Blanchard taught government at the academy, he would get classes so charged up they started humming the national anthem. So it was a glowing introduction he received from his old friend Capt. Pat Stillman, who as commandant of cadets was the equivalent of the academy's dean of students. And it was Stillman's office where other academy captains gathered after the dinner to assess the damage Blanchard's jokes had done. They decided to "sleep on it," one said later.

The next day, Wednesday, a Navy chaplain assigned to the academy came by Stillman's office to voice his concerns as well. He was followed on Thursday by a civilian female teacher who, like the chaplain, had been at the dinner. From there Stillman took the issue to the academy's second-in-command. They agreed that an apology from Blanchard would send the appropriate message to cadets. The academy's top officer agreed. They contacted Blanchard.

Blanchard saw the problem immediately. He was not just a captain. He was a captain in charge of representing the Coast Guard to the public. Of all people, he should have known better. He had lectured subordinates about the overwhelming importance of perception, especially on sensitive issues such as diversity; he had been careful to never compliment women staffers on their appearance.

No one knows what happened to his judgment the night of the dinner. What is clear is that his contrition was immediate. Blanchard faxed a letter up to Connecticut before the close of business.

"I offer my sincere apology if I offended anyone," the one-page letter read. "If only one person was offended, then my remarks were inappropriate and I will take action to be more considerate in the future. Us old seadogs also need to adapt and change the way we have always done things."

Copies went out to the cadets of Bravo Company. And with that, the academy brass thought, the subject was closed.

It wasn't. Some people were not satisfied. One woman, not identified by name, told another that the Coast Guard should make an example of Blanchard. "Book 'im," she said, according to the report.

A woman who had not been at the dinner wrote this to investigators: "No one should come in from outside the academy and spread such a message of hate."

"Hate?" says Navy Capt. Leroy Gilbert today. Gilbert is the chaplain who complained to Stillman. "His remarks were not about hatred. I don't see how anybody could interpret it that way."

By the time the investigator got to the campus, there were also rumors that Blanchard had told racist jokes. Gilbert, who is African American, said he would have remembered that.

What the captain had told, of course, were jokes about sex. What Was Done . . .

By its nature, humor is hostile. It targets people and institutions. Most of Blanchard's jokes poked fun at the sex drive: ridiculing men for their desperate, comical efforts to bed women. Arguably, such jokes -- while not overtly antagonistic to women -- define them strictly by their sexuality; feminists say that is one of the ways the majority gender has been kept in "place" over the centuries. Such jokes, it is said, encourage a climate that gives tacit license for more serious oppression.

It's a relatively subtle point, and the fact that it formed the kernel of "the Blanchard incident" might be taken as a measure of the progress that has been made at the Coast Guard Academy since the first female cadets arrived in 1976. The Class of 1979 called itself LCWB, the Last Class With Balls.

"In the opinion of many women who have been there," said a 1989 study of women in the Coast Guard, "the Academy is a bastion of male chauvinism fueled by an old-boy network reaching far beyond the Academy itself." Three years later, another, less dire study nonetheless found female cadets more stressed than male cadets, more harassed, and three times more likely to have noticed hearing slurs or jokes about their gender.

"I kind of expect my classmates to say something like that," says Cheryl Berezny, who as a member of Bravo Company was in Blanchard's Jan. 10, 1995, audience. In summer school a year and a half later, she's standing in a barracks hallway with young men joking and smiling and leaning backward in chairs. One takes a swipe at another's shoulder.

"Hearing it from a captain," she says, "it's a little different."

The 1992 study also observed that female cadets often downplay jokes and low-level harassment, as if wishing them away. Some female faculty and staff members see that denial as reason to be doubly vigilant on behalf of their younger charges.

It was two weeks after the dinner that Judith Youngman, the civilian political science teacher who had been a guest at the dinner, raised the issue again. This time she went past Stillman to the assistant superintendent, Capt. Robert C. Olsen. With her were two Coast Guard commanders, one female, the other male, both lawyers. Their roles in what followed remain murky to this day. "Only one person at that meeting had actually been at the dinner," noted Cmdr. Thomas J. Mackell, who as the academy's legal officer also attended the meeting. But that did not prevent, he said, "a fairly healthy discussion of what had happened."

Youngman, who had been at the dinner, told Olsen some of the jokes. They were worse than the vaguely "off-color" remarks he had expected. (As Mackell puts it, this was the first time Olsen "got the full flavor of the bean.") Youngman urged action beyond the apology -- an explanation to cadets why Blanchard's jokes were wrong, and a clear statement that the academy leadership did not condone them. The brass had called all-hands meetings for less significant things, including what kind of jeans cadets could wear off campus.

Soon Adm. Paul E. Versaw, the academy superintendent, also heard the jokes for the first time. He agreed that the cadets should be explicitly instructed. He said he would deal with Blanchard privately.

The record makes clear that to some, including Youngman -- who declined to comment for this article -- this was enough. Stillman ended up using his friend's jokes as a topic in his leadership class. "When I heard Captain Stillman break that apology down and say we don't do things that way, I was satisfied," chaplain Gilbert said. "I thought it was a beautiful job of turning this into a teaching device."

On the surface, nothing happened for a month. Then the academy had a visitor from Washington. Cmdr. Kathleen Donohoe was the Coast Guard's gender policy adviser, a sort of ombudsman who reports directly to the rear admiral who heads personnel. She arrived on a scheduled visit and rushed back to headquarters bearing a crisis.

Adm. William C. Donnell found her red-eyed in his office on a Monday morning. Donohoe had been up until 4 a.m., she explained, with academy women upset about "the Blanchard incident." The admiral knew what that was. Versaw had called shortly after the dinner and explained his plan to handle Blanchard's remarks informally, in keeping with the widely accepted policy of dealing first with such issues at the lowest possible level.

"I said, Fine, settle it informally,' " Donnell recalled.

Now Donohoe was telling him that she had been up most of the night with female Coast Guard officers who insisted the problem still existed.

No one in the group had been at the Bravo dinner. And it is unclear how many knew either of the apology or of Versaw's promise to follow it up.

In any event the group had sent Donohoe back to Washington with an ultimatum: Unless there was action from headquarters, some of them would take the controversy to the local newspaper, the New London Day. Donohoe gave her boss a sheet of paper with their version of the jokes on it. The admiral looked at the paper, then at his watch. The Coast Guard commandant would be leaving for the West Coast in an hour.

"I did not want the commandant to be blindsided," Donnell explained later. He hustled downstairs and told Adm. Robert E. Kramek of the threat. Neither had any doubt how Blanchard's talk would look in the Day, a newspaper the officers believed savored its watchdog role when writing about the academy.

"I was told by the commandant to jump right on it," Donnell said in an interview. "We are going to investigate the situation."

The inquiry he settled on was a one-man, one-month investigation that would report directly to Donnell. It was an administrative inquiry known in the Coast Guard as an AIM. The Unraveling

Blanchard was stunned. He had followed up his apology with a call to Stillman and learned that no cadet had complained. He thought the flap was over. And now a captain senior to him, David A. Potter, was in his office asking him to sign a Miranda warning.

Over a "bad joke"? Blanchard asked. How serious a situation is this?

Potter replied that it was serious enough for a rear admiral to convene an informal investigation. He was leaving for New London, he said, to interview cadets and others, and would be back to interview Blanchard at length in a week or so.

Blanchard told him he was thinking of leaving the Coast Guard.

It was an extreme thing to say. In many ways, the Coast Guard was what Ernest J. Blanchard IV was. His father, Ernest J. Blanchard III, was a career Navy man who brought the principles of rectitude and honor home with him.

"That was pretty much drilled into us as children," said Suzanne Shore, the oldest of the three Blanchard children. "Do what you say you're going to do. Be honorable. Don't bring shame on the family. Watch your actions."

In a family that moved often, the siblings had to be friends. Ernie, the only boy, was the youngest. Pam was 13 months older, Suzanne a year and a half older than her. "I was the one who used to beat up all the neighborhood kids when they picked on my brother," said Pam, whose married name is Fitzgerald, "until he punched my lights out and told me that was his job."

Enrolling in the Coast Guard Academy, which Blanchard did while his father was serving in Vietnam, had been a subtle declaration of independence. It wasn't the Navy, after all. In terms of numbers, it wasn't even the New York Police Department. But maybe because of its intimate size, or maybe because its peacetime mission blends the satisfaction of saving lives with the satisfaction of military discipline, professional pride tends to run especially high in the Coast Guard. In his four years at New London, Blanchard soaked up the lore and love of service that all cadets learn, and then some.

"Everything he did he did with gusto," says classmate John Gaughan, "and with a goal of -- perfection isn't the right word. Competency. And be the best."

His career rewarded his labors. Blanchard rose steadily through assorted commands until, on Coast Guard Day 1990, he was installed as the first captain of a newly commissioned 270-foot cutter, the Legare.

It was while on duty in the Caribbean that year, hauling aboard Haitians and chasing down drug runners, that Blanchard learned that two of his senior crew members were having an affair. Both were married. Each had heard Blanchard's warning against fraternization in the admonishments he dispensed personally when each crew member came aboard.

"We had gobs of documentation of our counseling of them both," said his second-in-command, Beverly Kelley. "We thought we had resolved most of it," she said, "although the counseling, I believe, upset the petty officer involved."

The petty officer was the woman. Almost a year later, after leaving active service, she filed discrimination complaints against both Blanchard and Kelley. She insisted they drove her out of the Coast Guard, and that Blanchard said that she was behaving like a "Jewish American princess." (She's not Jewish.) Though the deadline for such complaints had passed by months, an investigation went forward.

"I found no discrimination," said Capt. Thomas J. Marhevko, the investigating officer. Of 11 officers present when Blanchard supposedly made the slur, only one claimed to have heard it. "I felt if he said something as outrageous as that, everybody would remember it," Marhevko said.

His finding was endorsed by the commandant. But the former petty officer appealed to the civil rights office of the Department of Transportation, which except in times of war governs the Coast Guard. Finally, three years after the investigation began, Transportation reversed the Coast Guard in part. The commandant received the reversal in silence. Blanchard's record reflected the outcome but also the absence of any discipline resulting from it.

If it left a blemish on his record, in other words, it was a faint one. The toll had mostly been personal.

Blanchard's self-reliance, which had served him well as an officer, was tested severely by the isolation that goes with being investigated.

"I've done nothing wrong here," he said in one letter to his sister Pam, she recalled. "I would stand up for my people. Why isn't someone standing up for me?"

One woman who worked for Blanchard in Washington described him as "the ultimate performance-based" boss.

"I knew that he was my sea daddy," said Lt. Jan Proehl, an 18-year Coast Guard veteran. "I knew that he would look out for me. If he had stereotypes about women, he wouldn't do that."

"He really is my -- as a woman -- my personal mentor," said Kelley, who this summer becomes the first female captain of a 270-foot cutter.

At home, Connie Blanchard felt like an equal partner with her husband. He did all the grocery shopping. After dragging the family around the country for his career, he gave up possible command of the Eagle, America's tall ship, because it was at the academy and Connie had a good teaching job in Burke, Va.

But if Ernie Blanchard expressed pride in having commanded one of the first ships to berth women, he also made no particular secret of his irritation at any new doctrine of rectitude that accompanied the change.

"What he couldn't understand was this whole thing of political correctness," said his sister Suzanne. She said he felt people were people, and deserved equal consideration. "It wasn't about Sally or Jim," she said. "It had to do with two people. It was fair or it wasn't."

Blanchard saw himself, friends and family say, as the appointed guardian of the Coast Guard's image. And they ask why, when he came under fire in a way that blemished both his reputation and the Coast Guard's, the service did not give more thought to him.

In the end, Donnell and Kramek reversed Potter's finding of sexual harassment. The service was struck dumb by Blanchard's suicide, Donnell said, and has been watching for backlash from it.

"There are no villains that the Coast Guard sees in this at all," Donnell said.

Connie Blanchard, gracious and composed in the Burke living room she redecorated over the last year as "therapy," has accepted her loss as a tragedy. But she wonders about the circumstances that created it.

"I think the Coast Guard has to look at themselves internally, so this doesn't happen to someone else," she said. "You wonder: When does this person who was accused become the victim?"

The question goes beyond the Coast Guard. It extends to any organization facing the paradox of somehow supporting the person it is also investigating.

"I'll be honest with you. This one disturbed me," said Mike Gelles, who has performed more than 100 psychological autopsies for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and examined the Blanchard file for the Coast Guard.

"There's got to be a threshold somewhere where an individual's needs and an individual's sort of position in life has to be considered over the organizational, or the current political, belief.

"Captain Blanchard, Admiral Boorda in some ways are isolated in their world, isolated by their organizations. . . . The problem is it's just as easy to ask for a gun as to ask for help." The Wrong Script

The ordeal ended, as it began, with a simple misunderstanding.

Before he left for Connecticut, Blanchard phoned the head of Bravo Company and asked for the names of some firsties. Though he did not know a one of them, he then inserted their names into his jokes. The surprise was part of the fun in a "roast." A roast has the lowest threshold for forbidden humor. And the last Blanchard had heard, roasting was part of an academy dining-in.

A dining-in is what it sounds like: dinner at home, the resident company, perhaps with a few guests. It has rules. The president of the mess presides, assisted by Mr. Vice. Mr. Vice rules toasts and jokes in order or out of order, and administers fines for the latter. There's also the presentation of the "smoking lamp," used to light the cigars.

Had the Jan. 10 dinner been a dining-in, Potter's final report suggests, the entire evening might have been regarded as technically off the record, like the Gridiron Club dinner. Or Mr. Vice might have stopped Blanchard after the first joke.

As it was, Blanchard noticed right off that he had arrived not at a dining-in, but at a formal dinner, with guests. He also noticed that no one was having a very good time, and he knew why. Just before the dinner, Bravo had been told that its company officer had been relieved of his command under a cloud. The news cast a pall over the evening, and Blanchard, who had brought along two sets of remarks with him, tragically decided to use the set that included the jokes.

"I was trying to loosen this crowd up," he wrote in his defense, while waiting for Potter to return from his interviews in Connecticut.

The wait lasted eight days. Blanchard spent more and more of that time staring out the window at the Capitol. He dropped out of his exercise routine, sent underlings to meetings where admirals were expected.

He was summoned to Potter's office at 10 a.m. Friday, March 10. The interview lasted an hour and -- justifiably or not -- left Blanchard badly shaken. Potter declined to be interviewed for this story, saying through a spokesman that his report speaks for itself. But Blanchard later told friends and family that when he had asked the investigator what would be the worst that could happen, Potter replied that Blanchard could be court-martialed and lose his pension.

The words, to Blanchard, came to mean utter disgrace and financial ruin.

When he got back to his office he called Donnell at home. He already had typed up a letter of retirement. Now he asked if he could offer it in exchange for calling off the AIM. Donnell said he replied that the request was premature, that Blanchard should not overreact, but no, he could not stop the investigation.

There would be no escape.

"Newspapers are going to have a field day," Blanchard told Ernie Del Bueno, the commandant's personal spokesman. "I'm probably going to get court-martialed. My children are going to be humiliated."

Go home for the weekend, Del Bueno counseled, and take stock. It's not so bad, he said.

But in the office Monday, Blanchard was looking stressed. He had always been so high-energy that Del Bueno said Blanchard brought his own weather system into a room with him. This was clearly a depression. Blanchard said he had to take a few days off, that he would be back the following Monday. He took along his dress uniform and a briefcase with a copy of the Legare investigation inside. On his credenza was a partially completed life insurance application.

At home, Blanchard called the phone company and had his home number changed to unlisted. He feared a call from CNN. He spent hours going over his finances. He called his sisters.

"They didn't support me on the Legare thing when I was totally innocent," he told Pam. "What's going to happen now that I am guilty?"

"He was so broken," Pam said.

On Tuesday, the day Blanchard died, Del Bueno called him at home early. This time he gave him the name of a counselor at employee services. He explained that this was someone he could talk to in complete confidence and at no expense. Connie Blanchard reminded him of the number before she left for the day.

"If you knew Ernie, you know that he would never seek psychological help any more than I would," his sister Pam said. "That isn't the way we were raised. You deal with it yourself."

At 10:30, the office called. The public affairs staff had gotten wind that the Chicago Tribune was working on a story that involved sexual harassment. On the speaker phone, Blanchard went over the edge.

"It's all over," he said. "We're doomed. Total disaster for the public affairs program."

Connie called from work less than an hour later. "They're going public," he said.

She found his body in the back yard. The revolver had been his grandfather's, an old .32-caliber Winchester that Blanchard had taken from his father's bedroom when the old man was dying of cancer two years earlier, afraid of what he might do. Spilled bullets were scattered on the bedroom floor.

The first cartridge had not gone off. A misfire. This impressed Gelles, the Navy psychologist. Few suicides are determined enough to pull the trigger a second time.

On the answering machine, investigators found a heartbreaking message. It had been left by someone from the public affairs office about 12:30, and apparently was never heard by Blanchard.

"The investigation's bull . . ." the voice said. He was talking about the upcoming Chicago Tribune story. It had turned out to be an innocuous feature, reported two years earlier, nothing to do with harassment.

Friends descended on the house, to offer solace and condolences. John Gaughan, Blanchard's classmate, could see too clearly what had happened. He had seen Blanchard a fair amount in recent years at Vespers, as the Class of '70 called its occasional gatherings in a back room of the Hawk 'n' Dove. They talked politics and discussed old friends and, sometimes, Blanchard would tell one of those jokes that made Gaughan groan. Not because they were raunchy. Because they were lame.

But Blanchard took a pleasure in telling them, at least when he found himself in a setting that took him back to his days at the academy. It was, after all, where he first learned to love what he invariably called "the work of the Coast Guard." There he found a career that doubled as a way of life. And learned, during swab summer, the poetical answer every new cadet learns to the question "How long you been in the Coast Guard?"

All me bloomin' life, sir.

Me father was King Neptune,

Me mother was a mermaid.

I was born on the crest of a wave

And rocked in the cradle of the deep.

Me eyes is stars.

Me teeth is spars.

Me hair is hemp and seaweed.

I'm tough I am.

I is.

I are.

Sir. CAPTION: Blanchard, with his wife and daughter, at the commissioning of the Legare, a Coast Guard cutter he commanded, like the ship below. CAPTION: Ernie Blanchard, waving, at a Coast Guard outing. The Coast Guard was his life, and, in the end, his death. CAPTION: Blanchard, left, out with friends. The investigation concluded just what Blanchard predicted: that a dozen crude jokes told to 100 people constituted willful sexual harassment. CAPTION: "I offer my sincere apology if I offended anyone," wrote Blanchard. "Us old seadogs also need to adapt and change the way we have always done things."