In the usually protractive playout of Washington scandals, it was mercifully quick. One day, the story of wife beating by John Fedders, the Reagan administration's chief of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission, ran on page one. Two days later, a followup told of his resignation. It was as if in the court of public opinion, no backlog of cases allowed a delay in justice. For once, no $250-an-hour lawyers pretended they were defending a saint. No sickening media stakeouts were set up on the front lawn.

Fedders' final act of public service was to do the country a favor by laying low and getting out of sight. That is where the issue of wife abuse itself is, except it is hidden away in a false cover- up. It is mistakenly spoken of asan isolated deviation, high on the awful-things- sometimes-happen list of human breakdowns, like the Vietnam Syndrome in which veterans go berserk and gun down strangers on the sidewalk.

If the estimated 3 to 6 million wife- abuse cases a year suggest anything, this is not an aberrancy. It is an extension of the tough-guy cult that rules much of the nation's male-run social, political, economic and athletic life. A wife who takes a punch -- or strapping, kicking, burning or, in the Fedders' household, according to testimony, a blow to the stomach during pregnancy -- is the last victim of the terror-filled burden carried by those men who equate manliness with toughness. In the male lodge, acting out through wife beating is a way of being a man by being one of the boys.

It can get messy when the details appear on the front page, but as part of the culture, it often rates a hearty laugh. In the "Honeymooners," the Jackie Gleason television sitcom that has yet to bore the public after two dec howler is when the enraged Ralph Kramden clenches his fist, shakes it at his wife and bellows, "One of these days, Alice, POW -- right in the kisser." Ataway, Ralphie, says the approving Norton.

The acceptability of wife beating is less overt than the approval of the social conditions in which it flourishes. In any number of measurements -- America's being number one in handgun deaths, number one in worldwide arms sales, number one in possession of nuclear weapons -- the United States is the earth's most violent nation. How can families not be sucked into that? The home is often the final cup that gets filled to overflowing after the violence has been poured into the larger vessels beyond the front door.

Family therapists see the pattern. In "The Family Crucible," Augustus Napier and Carl Whitaker -- one a psychologist, the other a psychiatrist -- tell of two family members "engaged in a painful duel that was escalating towWe all know intuitively about this process: One person offers a provocation, the other retaliates with one of his or her own, and this brings about a reciprocal provocation by the first person. Each person adds a little more force to each response, and the process of attack and counterattack increases rapidly to higher and higher levels of intensity. We have all performed in this way on the playground as children, daring one another toward some crisis that ended in bloody noses and torn jackets. It happens in families. It happens between service stations in a price war. It is one way that nations get into ultimately tragic wars."

The fake virility that needs to be sustained by hitting a woman becomes the war in the home. At work, the successful male hits people with the acceptable weapons of achievement: aggressiveness, dominance, control. He earns praise as a tough operator, as did John Fedders, who made $150,000 at his Washington law firm and expected to earn much more after leaving government. At home, the tough operator must often be tougher. He might have a wife who is out of control by her thinking that marriage is an arrangement between equals, not master and subject. If necessary, this heresy must be beaten out of her, the way we have a foreign policy that beats up on nations like Nicaragua for daring to think they have standing with the United States.

The family, the most fragile of all institutions, needs the kind of reinforcement that a macho-dominated and violence-based culture can't give. Men need to be encouraged to break free. The pseudo-manliness that makes them successful in the workplace isn't what creates the qualities of genuine manhood -- kindness and attentiveness -- that undergird love between a man and woman or the beauty that results: family closeness.