James A. Baker III was en route from Athens to Rome when he decided to put an end to the story that was threatening to become the first full-fledged scandal of his career.

Five days earlier, the secretary of state had been upset by a Washington Post report that White House counsel C. Boyden Gray was pressing him to sell his substantial stock holdings in Chemical New York Corp. The bank holding company had billions of dollars in loans to Third World nations, and Baker was a key player on Third World debt. Reporters were raising the specter of conflict of interest.

Now, on February 14, 1989, Margaret Tutwiler, Baker's longtime aide and chief flak-catcher, walked toward the rear of the Air Force jet and read a statement to the 16 reporters on board. Baker would go "well beyond what is required" and sell the stock. This was "the correct decision for someone committed to meeting the highest ethical standards." There was another day or two of editorial tut-tutting, but the stock story was dead, having washed over the capital like a summer storm.

Fade to black. Cut to June 22, 1991. The town is buzzing about the scandal du jour, this one involving the frequent-flier practices of John Sununu. For the past two months, the White House chief of staff has stubbornly refused to talk to the press as the Air Sununu story soared higher and higher. President Bush, in a slap at his top aide, has taken away his travel authority. Sununu has defiantly commandeered a government limousine to ferry him to a New York stamp auction. He has kicked up another fuss by soliciting a businessman with government contracts for a corporate jet to fly him to Chicago.

Now, amid growing calls for his scalp, Sununu finally decides to play defense. He puts out a statement, recycling the classic Ronald Reagan phrase from the days of Iran-contra: "Mistakes were made." But it is too little and too late. The career-threatening crisis continues.

These two incidents, of course, are relatively minor blips in the vast constellation of issues facing the republic. We're not talking Watergate here. Yet the question lingers: Why did Baker emerge from his brief ordeal virtually unscathed, while Sununu remains a national symbol of pigheaded arrogance?

A large part of the answer is that Baker is the quintessential damage-control specialist, a man who has tirelessly cultivated reporters over the years. Sununu, by contrast, holds the press in open contempt and has an equally dangerous tendency to stiff-arm his adversaries in government, some of whom were eager to even the score when the high-flying chief of staff ran into turbulence.

But more than just personality is at work in these cases. There are other forces swirling around Washington that determine whether a budding scandal achieves hurricane force or blows out to sea. "It's like a plane crash," says defense lawyer Stanley Brand, a former House counsel who now advises the targets of ethics investigations. "There has to be a confluence of factors that come together at once to get enough momentum for people to pay attention."

There's the entertainment factor. Sex, drugs, ostentatious wealth and proximity to famous names all help determine whether a story will play in Peoria. If a businessman from the hinterlands obtains $500,000 in insider loans, that's likely to be a one-day story. If he spends the money on BMWs, yachts and blond bimbos, it may drag on for weeks. If the director of a collapsed savings and loan turns out to be the president's son, it'll produce a major-league media frenzy. The BCCI banking scandal, to cite another recent example, has turned out to be much bigger than Clark Clifford, but it was the grand-old-man-gone-wrong angle that made Washington sit up and take notice. "It's all geared to personal malfeasance," says Suzanne Garment, author of a new book on scandals. "We all read scandal news like we eat candy; we'll eat as much as is put in front of us. It drives out an appetite for other news."

There's the timing factor. Getting in trouble in a slow news period is a sure-fire prescription for banner headlines. The reverse is true as well: Who would have cared about Sununu's travels during the Persian Gulf War?

But most important is the political factor. Intelligent consumers of Washington scandal stories know that for every politician or government agency under attack, there are winners (whose agenda is somehow advanced by the brouhaha) and losers (whose standing or financial prospects are threatened by the outcome). There are budgets to be protected, policies to be salvaged, contracts to be won or lost. Democratic lawmakers tee off on Republican appointees and vice versa, all while mouthing solemn folderol about constitutional checks and balances.

Politics explains why some people's peccadilloes -- a low-interest loan, an ethnic slur, a drinking problem -- get blown up into Page 1 stories, while others surface only briefly if at all. Political counterattack is a common form of scandal defense: Sununu partisans tried to smother fallout from the junketing story by reminding everyone that members of Congress -- those damn Democrats! -- were guilty of far more extensive globe-trotting. And politics is at least part of the reason scandalmongers tend to ignore dry, institutional wrongdoing while zeroing in on the juiciest tidbits.

Even in cases of obvious, large-scale wrongdoing, such as the Reagan administration's clandestine aid to the contras, Washington's outrage meter sways less in response to abstract moral or constitutional questions than to the political fallout, such as the reaction to Oliver North's paper-shredding.

The current battle over Robert Gates is a case in point. Until Bush picked him to run the CIA, Gates was safely ensconced as the president's deputy national security adviser. Sure, he had once been forced to withdraw as Reagan's choice to head the CIA because of lingering questions about his role in the Iran-contra machinations. But it had been several years since Gates was the No. 2 man at the CIA, and Iran-contra was ancient history. That is, until Bush handed the Democrats a perfect opportunity to wallow in the scandal all over again with a laundry list of what-did-he-know questions at Gates's confirmation hearings. The president seems to have forgotten that nominations -- Ed Meese, William Bradford Reynolds, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas come to mind -- take on a political dynamic all their own, turning mere mortals into larger-than-life targets.

All of which is not to say that every Washington scandal is based on hyped-up allegations by folks with hidden agendas. But no investigation unfolds in a political vacuum, and a close look at some of the past decade's headline-grabbers suggests few exceptions to this basic rule: Scandals are just politics by another name. NIXON WAS THE ONE

What might be called Washington's ethics industry is a direct outgrowth of the Watergate era. Embarrassed by the spectacle of the Nixon campaign awash in illegal cash -- and a highly politicized Justice Department investigating all the president's men -- Congress joined with Jimmy Carter to declare a new era of reform, and the 1978 Ethics in Government Act was born.

There would be disclosure -- reams and reams of paper filed by senior government employees, members of Congress and political candidates about their income, honoraria, property and debts, even the finances of their spouses and children. There would be enforcement -- a new Office of Government Ethics would police ethical missteps by executive branch employees. There would be independence -- a special prosecutor, requested by the attorney general and named by a three-judge panel, would investigate charges of wrongdoing against top administration officials (and could not be fired, as Richard Nixon had fired Archibald Cox). There would be new lobbying restrictions -- senior officials leaving the government could not approach their former agencies for one year, or ever lobby them on any matter they had handled personally. Soon there would be more oversight committees, more prosecutors, more inspectors general.

Dozens of officials would be tripped up by this new regulatory undergrowth, running afoul of the technicalities or failing to disclose some fee or gift -- matters that nosy reporters never would have uncovered in the old days. While the first two men caught in a special prosecutor's web were Carter aides, the ethics law would not reach its full flowering until the Reagan years. It quickly became a tool for Democratic members of Congress to hammer the administration about what they liked to call the "sleaze factor."

No man better exemplifies the partisan warfare than Edwin Meese III, who was twice investigated by independent counsels. To be sure, Meese's personal finances practically invited prosecutorial scrutiny. First Meese's nomination as attorney general was delayed by an investigation of whether he had arranged jobs for people who aided him financially. A second probe looked at, among other things, whether Meese had helped the now-defunct Wedtech Corp. obtain federal contracts as a favor to a longtime friend.

But it's hard to argue that liberals did not take a special glee in seeing this hard-liner under investigation. "If an official is an ideological conservative, he's more vulnerable to an ethics charge," says Terry Eastland, who was fired as Meese's spokesman for not defending him aggressively enough. He describes Meese's sloppy finances as "a shirttail hanging out at such length that his political enemies could tug on it and try to drag him down."

Meese infuriated his critics by refusing to admit that he had erred in any way. "He had a real tinge of arrogance," says Larry Speakes, who was Ronald Reagan's White House spokesman. "When the press got a shot at him, they loaded both barrels."

A similar fate befell Michael Deaver -- who drew double-barreled assaults from both sides of the political aisle.

When Deaver resigned in 1985 as Ronald Reagan's chief image-maker, he did what legions of federal officials had done before him: He became a lobbyist. Selling access in Washington was a widely accepted way of doing business. And Michael K. Deaver & Associates was an instant success, attracting a blue-chip array of foreign and corporate clients. Deaver's clout was such that he even held on to his White House pass.

Then, without warning, it became clear that the ethical winds had changed. The Democrats suddenly had a very fat target -- a close friend of the president who, at the height of the greed decade, was "cashing in big time," as a former administration official put it. Deaver was so blatant about his quick spin through the revolving door that it was like waving a red flag at the bulls in Congress and the press. It didn't take much for the opposition party to turn him into the preeminent symbol of Washington influence peddling.

Here, after all, was a man brazen enough to pose for a Time cover that showed him picking up a car phone in the back of a rented limo. "WHO IS THIS MAN CALLING? -- Influence Peddling in Washington," the headline read. Within weeks, the press barrage began.

First there was a news story that Deaver had lobbied the director of the Office of Management and Budget about the B-1 bomber on behalf of Rockwell International. Then came a spate of articles about how Deaver had signed a $105,000 contract to represent the Canadian government on acid rain just six days after leaving the White House. If it was not always clear whether Deaver had violated the arcane technicalities of Jimmy Carter's ethics law -- if OMB was part of the White House, for example, or if Deaver had "personally and substantially" participated in acid rain discussions -- well, that was a matter for lawyers. The media mob descended, led by New York Times columnist William Safire, who called Deaver "Reagan's Billy Carter."

"I don't think he had too many friends in the press," a Deaver associate says. "Maybe they felt they had been manipulated."

Perhaps more important, Deaver had bitter enemies in the conservative camp.

Deaver was a natural target for John Dingell, the bulldog Michigan Democrat who heads the House oversight and investigations subcommittee. Dingell's panel has dug up many of the major scandals of the last decade, and the panel's crusades invariably make a big splash in the press. Problem was, Dingell's Democratic staff had already taken a look at Deaver's lobbying and not much had panned out. This time, they got some unexpected help.

"All the right-wing Republicans started giving us stuff on Deaver," says Michael Barrett, the subcommittee's former staff director. "He was the most genuinely hated man in town." Within weeks, the panel was taking Deaver's sworn testimony behind closed doors.

Congress, meanwhile, was working itself into a lather over revolving-door abuses and rushed to embrace new ethics bills. Five Democratic senators asked the Justice Department to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Deaver. Reagan called the request "ridiculous" and said he had the "utmost faith" in his old friend. But days later, Deaver himself made the same request.

Calling for an independent counsel to investigate you might seem masochistic, but such a move can be a very effective scandal defense. It has the effect of taking a case out of the headlines for months. The subject says he can't answer any questions until the investigation has run its course, by which time the press corps has moved on to some other scandal. And if he escapes indictment, he can declare himself vindicated.

There is, however, a downside. "Once you get into a criminal investigation, the game changes," says Eastland. "You can't engage in the kind of public-affairs spin control that might help you. You can't say, 'I may have made some misjudgments.' In a criminal case you're reduced to a criminal defense."

Despite the hue and cry over his lobbying, Deaver was convicted in 1987 only of lying to the Dingell subcommittee and a grand jury. He had tried to have it both ways, luring rich clients with implicit promises of access and then swearing to Democratic congressmen that he had no special access. For all his PR wizardry, Deaver seemed to forget how the political game is played. THE HUD SCANDAL: KICK 'EM WHEN THEY'RE GONE

Sometimes it takes years, not days or months, for a scandal to reach fruition.

For most of Ronald Reagan's presidency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development was widely viewed as a sinkhole of mismanagement and corruption. I should know. In the early 1980s, I churned out one story after another about the abysmal mess at HUD. Most of those stories vanished into some sort of journalistic black hole. No one cared.

But in the spring of 1989, a few months after Reagan left office, the political Zeitgeist changed. George Bush was talking kinder and gentler. There was a growing feeling that domestic problems had piled up on America's doorstep, that Reagan's feel-good regime had been asleep at the switch.

Along came the HUD inspector general, Paul Adams, with a report charging favoritism in the awarding of federal housing grants. The consultants feasting on the "mod rehab" program included such Reagan administration types as James Watt, the former interior secretary. A developer had paid Watt $300,000 to make a few telephone calls to senior HUD officials.

That whiff of hypocrisy -- hard-hearted Republicans feeding off the very poverty programs they had long denounced! -- boosted the story into the political stratosphere. Now HUD was more than a corrupt agency; it was a media metaphor for the failure of Reaganism. Soon there were tales of "Silent Sam" Pierce watching soap operas in his office while his young assistant, Deborah Gore Dean, signed letters with his autopen. Jack Kemp, the new secretary, was eager to establish his reform credentials by exposing the sins of the past. The previously obscure Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California launched a series of hearings at which congressmen vied to express their disgust with HUD. An independent counsel was named to investigate Pierce.

For the Democrats in Congress, this was like manna from heaven. A chance to beat up on the Reaganites, denounce government corruption and defend programs for the downtrodden, all for the price of one ticket! But where were these guys before?

After all, the horror stories I covered in the early '80s were hard to ignore: Top officials taking dozens of trips to vacation resorts and sending the bills to groups of builders and real estate agents. The deputy undersecretary resigning after disclosures that he had earned $145,000 while moonlighting by producing books and tapes on real estate. Senior officials trying to sell housing projects without competitive bidding to a Reagan campaign lawyer. An assistant secretary quitting after disclosures that he had HUD employees type and proofread his book -- Privatizing the Public Sector -- on government time. The head of the San Francisco office resigning after agreeing to repay $6,800 in travel charges, including bills for a Republican fund-raiser at Disneyland and $1,000 in meals while at home (he told investigators that "my wife doesn't like to cook").

Nor was the avalanche of sleaze limited to individual wrongdoing. From Boston, where agency funds paid for patronage workers who distributed absentee ballots, to Camden, N.J., where speculators used falsified documents to sell a house to a 4-year-old girl, HUD programs were a well-documented disaster.

But the political climate wasn't right. Members of Congress were more concerned with protecting their districts from the deep cuts in housing programs. The Justice Department took a laissez-faire approach to pursuing the cases, which often fell in a gray area between sleaze and illegality. Few editors or reporters cared about HUD, a backwater agency with the distinctly unfashionable mission of helping the poor; most were more interested in glamorous beats like the White House or the Pentagon. And HUD wasn't a television story. It was too abstract, too lacking in identifiable victims. On television, if you can't explain it in 20 seconds, it's history.

Even the inspector general's report didn't immediately set off alarm bells on the Hill. "I thought it was a third-rate burglary," says Stuart Weisberg, staff director of Lantos's House subcommittee.

Weisberg had read dozens of HUD audits over the years, most of them pretty boring. "Part of the problem," he says, "is the way these reports are written, a combination of accountant-ese and pablum: 'There are problems but the agency is making great strides.' 'Improvements could be made.' You've got pages about someone being caught stealing pencils."

Once the Democrats realized the scandal's potential, however, they provided the missing element needed to "drive" the story. Even the juiciest scandal needs some drama to keep it in the news week after week, and while a Hill hearing may produce no new facts, it tends to be a sort of prepackaged morality play, with an imperious chairman shouting at nervous witnesses. The Lantos hearings were all over television.

The HUD scandal had finally made prime time. But by then, of course, the damage had already been done. REVENGE OF THE REPUBLICANS

There was an obvious double standard inherent in most of the post-Watergate reforms passed by Congress. While it was deemed improper, even illegal, for an administration official to help someone win a contract or intervene in a regulatory proceeding, members of Congress did the same thing all the time. They called it "constituent service." And while the independent counsel law was automatically triggered when executive branch officials were accused of wrongdoing, members of Congress could be disciplined only if the ethics committees roused themselves into action. Even then they might get off with the proverbial wrist slap.

Thus, after eight years in which the Democrats chortled at the investigation of so many top Reagan aides -- Deaver, Meese, North, Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, national security adviser John Poindexter -- it was probably inevitable that an ethics backlash would hit Capitol Hill.

The Jim Wright scandal began in the fall of 1987 as a one-man negative PR campaign. For months, Newt Gingrich, an ambitious Republican congressman from Georgia, tried to peddle allegations against the House speaker to any reporter who would listen. He was armed mainly with one yellowed newspaper clipping: The Washington Post had run an embarrassing story on Wright, but few in official Washington seemed to care.

The story concerned Wright's book deal. It disclosed that the Texas congressman had earned $55,000 in "royalties" -- at an unheard-of 55 percent rate -- on a book he wrote that was published by a longtime friend. The friend's printing company happened to have been paid $265,000 for services to Wright's campaign committee the previous year. To many, it looked like a scheme to evade the House's limits on outside income.

Gingrich kept threatening to take the matter to the House ethics committee. But for that he needed an outcry in the press. He wrote to A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times: "I'm just puzzled why the New York Times hasn't taken on the issue of corruption in the House like The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have." He wrote to Common Cause, the self-styled citizens lobby, saying: "Your silence in this matter weakens the cause of honest government." But Gingrich was widely dismissed as a partisan gadfly. Except for some editorials in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, the story went nowhere.

"There has to be an event that legitimizes mass coverage," says Mark Johnson, who would become Wright's press secretary. That event took place the following spring, when Common Cause urged the ethics committee to examine the allegations. That gave the charges instant credibility, and within weeks the panel voted to investigate Wright.

"You're dealing with a system that doesn't particularly want to do these things," says Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer, referring to members of Congress passing judgment on their peers. "We have a track record of calling these things on the merits. The media can't formally ask for an investigation." For reporters who had been slow to jump on the story, it was open season on Jim Wright. "The press, frankly, didn't like him very much personally," Johnson says. But it was more than that. Journalists knew something about writing books, and Wright's book deal "did not pass the smell test," Johnson says.

The Republicans, who had long been on the defensive over the likes of Meese and Deaver, began training their rhetorical fire on Wright. Says Johnson: "The press began to look at issues wholly unrelated to the charges before the committee: 'Did he ever bounce a check 30 years ago?' There were questions about reimbursement for using a private plane in 1985. {Trying to defend Wright} was like shooting balloons out of the air -- they just kept rising."

The stories continued: A Wright aide had helped him write his book, Reflections of a Public Man, on government time. Special interest groups had bought thousands of copies of the book. The speaker had intervened with federal regulators on behalf of troubled Texas savings and loans. He had accepted $145,000 in gifts from a Fort Worth businessman with an interest in legislation.

On March 9, 1989, the day the Senate rejected John Tower as defense secretary amid allegations of drinking and womanizing, Johnson recalls a reporter telling him: "Now it's Jim Wright's turn." What he meant was that the press could only focus on one major scandal at a time. Many of the reporters who had been covering the Tower battle moved over to the House press gallery.

"Our strategy was to keep this thing off television," Johnson says. "We did not make Wright available for the network cameras. Without a picture, he just didn't get on." But even that strategy failed when the ethics committee began its hearings in April 1989. The panel charged the speaker with repeatedly violating House rules.

In early May, The Post reported that John Mack, Wright's top aide, had attacked and repeatedly stabbed a young woman 16 years earlier, and that he had been paroled to a job in Wright's office after only 27 months in prison. While unrelated to the charges against Wright, the story generated widespread outrage around the country.

On May 31, 1989 -- a year and a half after the first newspaper story had appeared -- Wright announced his resignation, saying he wanted to "bring this mindless cannibalism to an end."

The Wright imbroglio was a classic demonstration of the synergy between partisan critics and the press, neither of which could have forced a House ethics probe on their own. The speaker initially refused to take the matter seriously, allowing a trickle of minor allegations to gather force until he was inundated. And his timing was awful. Wright had the misfortune to be strapped under the ethi- cal microscope at the end of the Reagan era, just as Washington was undergoing one of its periodic frenzies about morality in government. BORING FORESTS, SEXY TREES

In the summer of 1983, an editor handed me a short wire story about some congressman declaring that the Pentagon was paying too much for some spare part. He asked if I wanted to pursue it. I decided it was no big deal. After all, congressional committees had been railing about military waste for years. I had read General Accounting Office reports on every procurement problem under the sun. It seemed utterly routine, at least from an inside-the-Beltway perspective.

The assignment fell to a summer intern, Barton Gellman. He was asked to do a case study of a spare-parts horror story. He executed it brilliantly. On August 21, 1983, Gellman's story -- "Saga of the World's Costliest Plastic Cap" -- was stripped across the top of the front page of the Sunday paper.

"What distinguishes this particular cap from any other lump of white nylon is that the Air Force paid its government supplier $1,118.26 for it," he wrote, "which is roughly the cost of the plastic, plus $1,118."

"I didn't break that story," says Gellman. "Either it came out of an IG's report or there was a wire story. I saw it as an explanatory piece. They played it as though we had discovered some massive new scandal."

No matter. The story struck a nerve with the public, and it fit neatly into the Democratic agenda. Many Democrats opposed the huge Reagan defense buildup, complaining that it drained billions from social programs. But the buildup was popular, and the Democrats, already vulnerable to the "weak on defense" charge, were reluctant to criticize it directly. Military waste gave them the perfect issue with which to attack a bloated Pentagon.

With politics helping drive a story that was made for television, it quickly achieved air superiority. Hardly a week went by without members of Congress waving some new symbol of waste in front of the cameras. The $748 pair of pliers. The $7,600 coffee maker. And the piece de resistance, the $640 toilet seat, which Herblock liked to draw around Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's neck.

The next step for the Democrats was to take on a major defense contractor. Once again, Big John Dingell and his oversight subcommittee led the way. A Dingell staffer noticed a story in Forbes magazine about alleged skulduggery at General Dynamics, and the hunt was on.

Dingell's investigators are the most dogged on the Hill, and they are expert at working the press. Shortly before a major hearing, advance stories, known in the trade as "curtain-raisers," will mysteriously appear in selected newspapers.

I'm not giving away any confidential sources, but in February 1985, a few weeks before Dingell held his first hearing on General Dynamics, I wrote a story about the panel's investigation. It said General Dynamics had charged the Pentagon for entertaining administration officials, members of Congress and their aides at golf resorts, Las Vegas casinos, Kennedy Center shows and such Washington restaurants as Maison Blanche.

The hearing itself was a complicated affair, ranging from millions of dollars in disputed charges on submarine contracts in the 1970s to whether the company had misled the Securities and Exchange Commission. But there was one light moment that captured the essence of the investigation.

Dingell asked the company's chairman, David Lewis, why General Dynamics had charged the government $155 for "Fursten." Lewis said he had never heard of a Mr. Fursten. Dingell revealed, to raucous laughter, that Fursten was an executive's dog. The taxpayers had paid for the dog to be boarded at Silver Maple Farm in St. Louis while 70 company officials and their wives attended a business conference at a South Carolina retreat at a cost of more than $100,000. Fursten became famous, at least among Washington pundits and editorialists, and General Dynamics became the symbol of a defense industry out of control.

Company officials complained that they were being pilloried for standard overhead charges that Pentagon auditors had approved for years. "Every time we opened the newspaper, General Dynamics was getting whacked with a new standard that had not been previously applied," says Stan Brand, who was doing damage control for the firm. Of course, the notion that golfing fees and country club dues were a legitimate government expense was ludicrous, but General Dynamics didn't realize, until it was too late, that the old rules had changed.

What hadn't changed, of course, was the unwritten assumption behind most coverage of government spending: that no one pays attention to long, complicated stories full of numbers, no matter how many tax dollars are at stake. Got an in-depth analysis of a flawed guidance system running up billions in cost overruns? Wake us when it's over. Got a $640 toilet seat? Now you're on to something people can understand.

And don't forget our old friend the politics factor. Democrats and Republicans may have somewhat different views on defense, but even most liberals want to protect those military bases and Pentagon contractors back home. And no pol wants to spend the next campaign responding to 30-second soft-on-defense ads. Beating up on fat-cat executives may be fun and games, but there's little political percentage in a frontal assault on military spending.

This bipartisan, see-no-evil approach to huge spending questions isn't limited to defense, of course. If there was ever a scandal most politicians wanted to sweep under the rug, it was the savings and loan fiasco.

For two long years, even as estimates of a potential bailout rose past $100 billion, the virtual collapse of the thrift industry remained largely a business-page story and received scant television coverage. It was vast. It was monumental. And it was boring, at least to most editors. Boring enough so that reporters almost never raised it during the flags-and-furloughs presidential campaign of 1988. Unlike all those scandals in which one party beats the drums for partisan advantage, both Republicans and Democrats seemed to have tacitly agreed to keep the issue quiet, since both the administration and Congress shared the blame and neither wanted to confront the potential cost to the taxpayers.

Financial reporters say they could not get S&L stories on the front page even as the finger-pointing escalated over the spectacular collapse of Charles Keating's Lincoln Savings & Loan. The numbers kept changing. Regulators misled them about the scope of the disaster. And some editors worried about starting bank runs. When Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston of California, who had intervened with federal regulators for Keating, acknowledged he had raised $850,000 from the financier for some voter-registration groups, The Post ran the story on Page 21. And this time Common Cause's request for an ethics probe had little impact.

"The S&L story was such a huge story, with such large dimensions, that it didn't fit into the context of how people in your business cover news," Fred Wertheimer says. "Personalities make for an interested public and an interested media. Things that are complex, abstract, issue-framed are much harder to get a handle on."

Even financial reporters missed the boat. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Brooks Jackson says he had told colleagues at the paper "that we really ought to look at this thing, that it was economically dangerous, and the potential for colossal losses was there . . . I could never get much enthusiasm. If anybody should've been suspicious, it's the Wall Street Journal . . . I've kicked myself for not doing more."

The S&L mess finally became a mega-story in the fall of 1989 when Democratic Rep. Henry Gonzalez of Texas, chairman of the House Banking Committee, held a series of hearings. After all those months of mind-numbing figures, it was suddenly so simple: There were the Keating Five -- Senate colleagues Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, John McCain, John Glenn and Donald Riegle -- whose names became Washington shorthand for all that was wrong with big-money politics, and there was Neil Bush, the president's son, who was a director of a Denver S&L that handed out millions in loans to insiders before its $1.6 billion collapse. The story had turned personal, and that -- along with the greatest wave of bank failures since the Depression -- prompted a full-scale media mobilization. By this time, of course, the taxpayers were out a few hundred billion dollars. THE MEDIA-POLITICAL COMPLEX

As should be obvious by now, understanding Washington scandals involves more than just analyzing their political roots. One must always keep in mind the fundamentally symbiotic relationship between the press and the people it covers.

Perhaps you thought the media, those monolithic molders of elite opinion, simply picked their targets with impunity. But as insiders well know, reporters, despite their quasi-independent status, are part of the political game. They depend on partisans for information. They are often unwitting spear carriers for combatants assailing each other through the press. And reporters, in turn, depend on the political process to keep their stories alive. They need audits, investigations, hearings, news conferences, grand juries, indictments, outraged letters, resignations. Without such elements, even the best stories wither on the media vine.

Another obvious factor, though no one likes to say it too loudly, is the personal relationship between members of the press and the particular political figures under attack. There's no denying that journalists have plenty of opinions that shape their world outlook, though most work hard at keeping these biases out of their stories. But the fact is, most reporters aren't all that passionate about national health insurance or supply-side economics. They have a different kind of bias: They like folks who gossip, whisper secrets and return their phone calls. They don't like being ignored or shunted off to tight-lipped flacks. So it's hardly surprising that pols who are accessible and helpful often fare better than those who refuse to play the game.

And that brings us back to John Sununu and Jim Baker.

Clearly, Sununu broke every rule in the damage-control handbook. He was vulnerable because the Bush administration was littered with his enemies. He was arrogant, using Air Force jets for Colorado ski trips with little regard for how it might look if it ever became public. He stonewalled the press, rejecting the advice of several White House officials that he make a clean breast of things, even take the Metroliner and invite the press in for a photo op. White House spokesmen offered shifting explanations that were incomplete and often wrong, giving reporters more red meat to chew over.

As Sununu's detractors deluged the press with tips, new revelations surfaced: A ski industry lobby paid Sununu's expenses on a trip to Aspen. A political trip to Chicago coincided with a wedding reception for a former Sununu aide. The result was three weeks of negative headlines: "SUNUNU FREQUENT FLIER ON MILITARY AIRCRAFT . . . PRESIDENT AUTHORIZES ACCOUNTING OF SUNUNU TRAVEL . . . SUNUNU DEEMS ONLY 4 PLANE TRIPS 'PERSONAL' . . . WHITE HOUSE SCOURS SUNUNU TRAVEL RECORDS FOR IMPROPRIETIES . . . CHIEF OF STAFF ACTED TO CURB OTHERS' TRIPS . . ."

But Sununu seemed oblivious to the media static. Just as the first storm died down, he revived the story with his limo ride to New York, as if determined to thumb his nose at the public. He appeared to blame everyone -- Republican rivals, pro-Israel groups, the media -- without realizing that he had played the biggest role in pumping up the story. Before long Sununu was starring in the inevitable third act of scandal dramas -- the one where anonymous sources speculate about whether the guy can hang on to his job.

Fred Barnes, whose dispatches in the New Republic sometimes reflect Sununu's viewpoint, says the chief of staff clearly suffers for his prickly relations with reporters. "Sununu is passionate on the subject: He thinks it's because he doesn't leak," Barnes says.

Barnes also sees an ideological component to the anti-Sununu stories. "Most reporters are liberal, and this is the most conservative guy in the administration," he says.

Still, when you treat the press the way Sununu does, philosophical differences become an afterthought at best. Soon after Bush took office, Time's White House reporters, Dan Goodgame and Michael Duffy, invited Sununu to a Time banquet. He took the opportunity to savage them in front of their bosses, saying he wouldn't trust them to run a shoe store. Nearly every White House regular has a similar tale or two.

"Anyone who covers a beat forms an opinion about the veracity of the people you're covering," says Ann Devroy, a White House correspondent for The Post and co-author of the Sununu travel stories. Several White House reporters say Sununu has repeatedly misled them about stories. It's not so much that they detest him as that they find him untrustworthy.

One correspondent acknowledges he must make a concerted effort to put aside his personal feelings when writing about the chief of staff. "I have a lot of animus toward Sununu," he says. "He's a nasty guy. He thinks journalists as a class are stupid and lazy . . . Does he suffer for that in the way he's covered? Absolutely."

Jim Baker is at the opposite extreme. His smooth relations with those who cover him have given him a Teflon-like quality over the years. But Baker is also capable of cutting off reporters who cross him, leaving them with no access to "a senior official aboard the Baker plane."

"Baker really protects his image and reputation for honesty," says a former Reagan administration official. "In the White House, Baker would spend 50 percent of his time on the phone with press people."

Fred Barnes once wrote that Baker has "the most bloated reputation in American politics" because he has perfected "the Washington Schmooze, the fail-safe system for neutralizing the press." He noted that "reporters treat Baker as the man who does no wrong . . . Baker's flubs and flaps are ignored or forgotten by the press."

Barnes wrote that in 1988. That was before Baker was caught dissembling about national security adviser Brent Scowcroft's secret trip to China after the administration claimed it had broken off high-level contacts with Beijing. And it was before the Chemical stock episode, which prompted the New York Times to chide the secretary for his "ill-advised insistence on holding the stock."

"If Baker had a lot of political enemies on Capitol Hill, that could have been a different story," says Terry Eastland. "You didn't have a Carl Levin or a Barney Frank saying we have to investigate this and hold hearings. And he has enormously good relations with lots of reporters."

Of course, the stock story didn't materialize out of thin air. It emerged because C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, was investigating whether Baker should dump the stock. Gray, it should be noted, had just been hit by news reports that he had accepted thousands of dollars in fees from a family communications company while working for Vice President Bush. Baker let it be known that he was furious, believing that Gray leaked the stock story to deflect attention from his own ethics problem.

But Baker proved masterful at spinning the story, stressing that the stock grew out of a bank that had been founded by his grandfather. "Officials close to Mr. Baker said he was both financially and emotionally attached to the stock," the New York Times noted.

At the very least, public officials who court the press seem to get the benefit of the doubt when the going gets rough. This may reflect nothing more than human nature. When allegations of wrongdoing fill the air, who are you going to believe: the guy who's on the phone pleading his case, or the one who won't take your calls? A BETTER GRADE OF SCANDAL

So now we've outlined the basic rules of the Washington Scandal Game. Personalize scandal: Advance three spaces. Spice up scandal with sex angle or famous person: Advance five spaces. Pin scandal on someone who's bad at damage control: Win a free trip to Page 1. Unearth scandal in a slow news month: Collect 100 bylines. Discover scandal that fuels the political wars: Proceed directly to journalistic heaven.

Perhaps it's time to invent some new rules. Maybe, just maybe, we need a new definition of what is really scandalous.

Imagine the possibilities: Stories about massive waste in the Medicaid program instead of the flashy expose about the Medicaid doctor with a yacht and a Mercedes. Stories examining the decline of public education instead of the quick hit about condoms in the schools. Stories about how high-priced lobbyists affect public decision-making every day instead of the inside dirt on the latest big name to spin through the revolving door.

Sound naive? Maybe so. But surely the press can do better than careen from one overheated scandal to the next. Our attention span is a joke; by the time anyone starts thinking seriously about fundamental reforms, we've all moved on to the next outrage. HUD is still a bureaucratic monstrosity, but who cares? Jack Kemp is said to be thinking about his next job. Read anything damning about defense procurement lately? We still have problems with cost overruns and weapons that don't work -- not to mention a gargantuan budget deficit with no "peace dividend" in sight -- but who wants to read about them after the slam-bam success of the Gulf War? And maybe the real story on John Sununu isn't how he gets to Aspen but why he hasn't helped his president fashion a domestic agenda more ambitious than threatening to veto Democratic bills.

Nearly a decade ago, Washington breathlessly followed the scandal at Anne Burford's Environmental Protection Agency and the charges that she was playing politics with the Superfund toxic-waste program. The scandal vanished as soon as Burford resigned. A few months ago The Post ran a long, meticulously researched piece on mismanagement in the Superfund program. There hasn't exactly been a media stampede on the subject.

The easy cop-out is to say that readers' and viewers' interests drive the news. And it's true that we live in an MTV society with an insatiable appetite for the new and novel. That's why the war was so perfect -- it was a 10-week miniseries that made way for new programming by the time we had to ponder the mess we left behind.

But if scandals are just politics by another name -- and if politics is a seamy business these days, all image-making and dirt-throwing, without much concern for the real business of government -- then the need for a higher quality of scandal has never been so great. And surely the press can do something to help achieve this worthy goal.

Don't hold your breath, though. There's an election year coming up.

Howard Kurtz covers the media for The Post. His last story for the Magazine was "How to Succeed in Washington by Going on Television."