I know of a senator who's a womanizer. I know of at least four who are drunks. I know of a governor who beats his wife, and I know of several politicians -- not to mention administration officials -- who are gay. Would you like to know their names? the first place, I'm not so sure it's any of your business. In the second place -- and more to the point -- I really don't "know" the things I think I know. I merely have heard rumors. Washington, after all, is a company town.

But for some reason, the rules have been suspended for Rep. Jack Kemp (R- N.Y.). At least three times recently he has been asked whether he has ever been a homosexual or had a homosexual experience. Newsweek has posed the question. Vanity Fair, too. And just recently, the question was put to Kemp on the "Today" show, where he was asked to deny "categorically" that he had ever had a homosexual experience. He did so -- "categorically."

Each time, Kemp says no. No, he is not a homosexual. No, he has not had a homosexual experience. Each time, in effect, he has been forced to respond to a rumor for which there is no proof -- not even an accuser. All by himself, Kemp has become a victim of a new kind of journalistic excess -- sexual McCarthyism. In a manner reminiscent of the late Joe McCarthy, people ask him to deny that he is now or ever has been a homosexual. Journalism has had prouder moments.

The rumor about Kemp stems from an incident that occurred during Ronald Reagan's first term as California governor. Kemp, a young GOP zealot (he is now an older zealot) and the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, was a part-time Reagan aide and the co-owner of a vacation lodge. The other owner of the lodge was also a Reagan aide, who used the lodge for homosexual parties. There has never been any evidence that the lodge was anything other than what Kemp said it was -- a real estate investment he never even visited. Nevertheless, the rumor persists.

For any politician, a rumor of homosexuality would be both troubling and damaging. But for Kemp, it could be curtains. His core constituency includes the pathologically conservative. For most Americans, homosexuality remains a taboo, but for Kemp's people -- their intolerance fanned by a gaggle of Bible-thumping bigots -- it represents a kind of sexual communism. It's beyond the pale, beyond comprehension and, of course, beyond toleration. Maybe Kemp is learning the hard way the price of intolerance.

If there were proof that Kemp is homosexual, bisexual or once had been any of these things, then maybe it would be worth reporting -- maybe. For some people, it would raise serious questions of character, and they would look elsewhere for a candidate to support. For others, it would raise questions about hypocrisy -- character again, I suppose. For still others, it would simply raise questions. What does it mean? After all, when it comes to sex, it's hard to say what matters. John Kennedy appears to have been a womanizer, but it's not clear that it affected his presidency. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, appears to have never cheated on his wife -- just on the American people.

But in Kemp's case, the fact remains that there is no proof that he is anything other than a red-blooded American heterosexual -- a husband and father of four children and a tax reduction bill. All the rest is rumor -- the same sort of rumor that says Senator So-and-So is a drunk, that a certain governor beats his wife or that a member of the Reagan administration is gay. Merely to ask the question is to spread the rumor. The "Today" show interviewer, for instance, knew damn well what Kemp's answer would be, and would have fallen out of her chair if Kemp had answered in the affirmative. She could just as well have asked him if he beat his wife.

The rules of journalism -- if you concede there are such things -- are changing. The White House press corps, which looked the other way for John Kennedy, would not similarly oblige a president nowadays. That's good. It is the obligation of the press to give the public the facts so it can make up its own mind about character. But the key word is facts -- not rumors. A lot has changed in journalism, but there is one standard still worth keeping: If you have the proof, write it. If not, shut up.