IN HIS HOUR of chagrin, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) could at least be grateful for the enemies he had been dealt.
By and large, the House of Representatives was willing to go along with the punishment recommended by the Ethics Committee, a letter of reprimand. Two Republican members, whose identity was Frank's good luck, demanded more.
Newt Gingrich, the Republican whip, had decided that Frank should be censured for his wildly indiscreet conduct with a male model/prostitute who eventually turned on him.
A number of Democrats, who are extremely uncomfortable in any discussion of homosexuality, were outraged.
The Ethics Committee was good enough for Gingrich when it let him off the hook on a questionable book deal.
Democrats knew, of course, that this most partisan member of his party would seek some partisan advantage from the Frank case, but the reality made many of them fighting mad. Gingrich was making a bad situation worse; in painful ethical matters, it is an actionable violation of unwritten rules.
The Senate, the day before, gave a textbook demonstration of how these excruciating affairs are best managed. It voted 96-0 to "denounce " Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) for some intricate evasions of the ceiling on honoraria. It was done amid multiple expressions of regret, regard, affection and even respect.
Gingrich was seeking to exploit what many Republicans, having lost taxes, abortion and the evil empire as issues, think is all that is left to them: that is, "values" -- including intolerance of homosexuality. Gingrich stoutly denied that his effort was in any way related to Frank's avowed lifestyle.
He was likely equally tempted by Frank's colossal and uncharacteristic stupidity. The Massachusetts congressman who has one of the best brains in the House, had taken a viper to his bosom.
In a Pygmalion-like fit, he had taken Stephen Gobie, whom he first met in Gobie's professional capacity of prostitute, home to reform him. His protege promply set up a prostitution ring in Frank's home. Frank denied knowing anything about it, and the Ethics Committee believed him.
The committee report was unanimous, in large part because of the heroism of ranking Republican John Myers of Indiana, who withstood ferocious pressure from self-righteous colleagues.
Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Calif.), who sought Frank's expulsion from the House, was almost more than a man in trouble could hope for.
Dannemeyer, an immensely tall and spectrally thin man from Orange County, represents all the far-right fanaticism of his home territory. He is obsessed with homosexuality. He has delivered speeches on the House floor -- speeches reported in issues of the Congressional Record that have become hard to find -- about homosexual practices in terms far too explicit and graphic to be printed in a family newspaper.
The vote on his motion to expel was 38 for and 396 against.
Dannemeyer was challenged directly by Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a dapper and cheerful little man. "If we remove the bells and whistles in this case," Ackerman said to Dannemeyer, it comes down to "your opinion that someone with that lifestyle should not be allowed to serve in the House."
"I would say it isn't the issue at all," said Dannemeyer heatedly.
They shouted at each other for a moment or two and Dannemeyer got a hand from the galleries.
The quiet on the House floor was preternatural. Usually, the chamber is abuzz with conversation that reaches such volume it has to be rapped to order by the presiding officer. But there was not a sound -- nothing is more gripping than sin and penance. The members sat quietly in their seats, no backslapping, no newspaper reading, no nattering.
Frank, looking pale, was in the sixth row, protected by a phalanx of Massachusetts brethren, including Chet Atkins, a member of the Ethics Committee, and Gerry Studds, who went through the process in 1983, when he was censured for his conduct with a minor House page.
The Frank outcome was never in doubt. Southerners may have problems with homosexuality. Their preachers thunder against it. But the Bork nomination, which all but one southern Democratic senator voted against, had informed them about the powerful importance of the privacy issue. It is one which unites all ages and parties. What Barney Frank did in his own time was his own business. Whatever they hear on Sunday, that is what they believe.
So if not all of them could entirely sympathize when Frank got up and, in the course of an abject apology, said it never would have happened if he had come out of the closet earlier, they could show a little respect. Gingrich and Dannemeyer inadvertently helped Frank, but even without them, the traditionalists might well have voted the same way.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.