FROM DAY ONE of the Senate Ethics Committee hearings on the Keating Five, it seemed that nothing could make them more unpleasant. But something did. The testimony of Edwin Gray, former chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, made matters infinitely worse. Committee members found this undistinguished Reagan appointee unsympathetic; they found his material unwelcome.

Gray was a public-relations man when Ronald Reagan tapped him for campaign duty in California. How good he was at that line of work is not known. Judging from his appearance before the committee, he was probably not incandescent. He is a melancholy-looking man, the lines of his face falling in diagonals of hound-dog sadness. His eyes are deep-set, his brows heavy and black. His voice is deep. He has an aggrieved air. He struck some as being as incompetent as bank-board chairman as Edwin Meese was as attorney general.

Gray is the chief witness against the Five -- and probably the last person in the world whom the six members of the Ethics Commitee would want to bring down their colleagues. Special Counsel Robert Bennett could see that, and he tried to muss Gray up preemptively so the lawyers for the Five might not do irretrievable damage.

Bennett asked him, for instance, why, if Gray was as "deeply troubled" as he professed to be by the senators' behavior, he had not told anyone about it for two years? Gray said he didn't think anyone would believe him. After all, it was four against one, in Sen. Dennis DeConcini's office on April 2, 1987. They would call him a liar. He was right about that: DeConcini, Alan Cranston, John McCain and John Glenn -- all recipients of Charles Keating's largesse -- dispute Gray to this day. (Don Riegle, the fifth missed the meeting.)

Gray said he was told to come alone, and when he arrived DeConcini opened things up by saying, "We are here to talk about our friend at Lincoln." He says he was offered a deal: If he would withdraw a new regulation that would have cost Keating $60 million, Keating would make more money available for home mortgages, which was, of course, the original S&L goal.

Gray thought it was "absolutely" improper. Then why didn't he say so? Well, he didn't want to risk losing their votes on crucial legislation for the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., which had to guarantee S&L deposits. And he spoke inexplicably of his "dignity as the head of an agency."

Gray did something even more mysterious. Because he couldn't answer the senators' questions about their friend at Lincoln -- although it was brought out that he knew more about it than he admitted -- he volunteered to send them the regulators who were investigating the Keating S&L.

"Why," asked Bennett, "did you let two people walk into the same lions' den a week later?"

"They made the rules, they made the laws," said Gray almost petulantly, "I was deeply troubled by that meeting, but frankly, I didn't have the temperament to be a whistleblower." He is not, in short, a stand-up guy. DeConcini's lawyer, James Hamilton, asked him, "Is there any reason the American people should believe you and disbelieve these four prominent U.S. senators?"

That is the big question. But Gray, despite the buffeting, stuck to his story. "We did not succumb," he said. The FSLIC law passed.

The Keating Five no longer come to the hearings. Alan Cranston can't -- he is undergoing radiation for prostate cancer. The others can watch on C-Span. They are understandably seeking another context, gliding back to judging instead of being judged. Two have found it in the crisis of the moment, the one in the gulf. In the Senate Armed Services Committee, they pass judgment on war and peace in Sen. Sam Nunn's inquiry on the crisis. McCain lectured his colleagues about their duties: "The issue here is not prerogatives; it is patriotism."

John Glenn sits on the dais, too. Two senators down from McCain, diagonally opposite Glenn, sits one of their judges, Sen. Trent Lott of the Ethics Committee.

Ordinary defendants do not go about making decisions on other people's lives. But this is not a trial, as everyone is frequently reminded by the chairman, Sen. Howell Heflin. Counsel Bennett is constantly cautioned against playing the prosecutor.

The defense of the Five is that they broke no law, no Senate rule. Members of the Ethics Committee must decide whether they brought "discredit on the Senate."

So far, all that has come out relates to their diligence in behalf of one constituent at the expense of so many. It makes you wonder if other senators are organizing and agitating these days as fiercely to stop a war in the gulf as the Five did to make Charlie Keating happy.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.