Last week, Jim Vance, one of Washington's best-known television anchors, took a leave of absence from his job at WRC-TV to go to the Betty Ford Center to seek treatment for what he said was exhaustion, depression and drug dependency.

Because the intimacy of television had brought Vance into our living rooms each day for the past 15 years, it seemed almost like a revelation from a member of the family or a friend. And so the various responses to his confession were not surprising.

While a few people were critical and uncompassionate, most were sympathetic: He's a good man, they said, and it takes a courageous person to go public with such a sensitive problem. Hundreds of viewers called Channel 4, asking where they could write to encourage him.

We can never know the full story of Vance's problem -- that remains locked within the man. But what makes the Vance case particularly poignant, aside from his ability to exude a great deal of warmth during his newscasts, is the issue of image and the special role it plays in Washington.

On television, Vance projects an image of a strong man -- determined, blunt, reliable -- who can also be playful and enthusiastic toward things he cares about. His image is one of his strongest commodities. He used it to grab a large share of the viewing public for WRC-TV; and in his business, image counts just as much as talent, skill, experience or any other professional attributes.

In Washington, image is even more sacred than in most cities, and television journalists are scrutinized as intensely as politicians. Because Washington is the world capital of political power, politics blends with image and machismo in peculiar ways.

Of course, image becomes an even more complex and unique matter when it is tied to the special problem of macho/black males who are making it: walking tightropes, feeling they have to be supermen to compete, yet afraid to stumble.

In a sense, Vance's most important admission may be that the anxiety, pressure and energy it takes to keep up the image can lead to a host of problems that many Washington men hide, ironically to maintain their image.

So his announcement is an acknowledgement that the image needs repair, and the man needs help. And it is his courage, in overcoming the shackles of the image that he helped create, that people have been applauding in the past few days. He said in a statement that he was "suffering from exhaustion, depression and a dependency on drugs used to overcome these problems."

There is much about Jim Vance that we don't know, but we do know that he has great respect and love for his roots -- the neighborhood in Philadelphia where he was born and raised, the family and many friends with whom he stays in contact. And he is a caring father to his children, though he is twice divorced.

When Vance, a former schoolteacher, was hired as a television reporter and came to Washington, at age 28 in 1969, the city quickly adopted him and he went on to become a weekend anchor in 1970, and a weekday coanchor two years later.

Like many other journalists, he put in long hours, and Channel 4's management said that he had been "under considerable pressure in recent months." In addition to his anchoring duties, he did nightly commentaries in recent years. Managing to survive coanchor shakeups, he won numerous citations for his hard-hitting work as a newsman, he became a speaker to audiences that ranged from schools to government, and he even occasionally managed to emcee a benefit fashion show.

Vance is now undergoing treatment and has said he is "looking forward to returning to work. . . . " The WRC management says it is "looking forward to his recovery and his most welcome return to Channel 4" in a few weeks.

When Jim Vance returns, make no mistake about it, his battles will not be over. It is then that we, the community, will have our biggest chance to support a "friend," forgiving him his sins -- against himself.