Even for incessantly gossipy Washington, the rumor mills have been working overtime of late. Phone calls about supposed behavior of public figures are numerous. Most deal with presidential candidates, though some concern alleged sexual rings, gay and straight, and they all come in the guise of whispered inquiries or tips:

"Have you heard about -- ?" . . . "Her name is -- and she lives at -- ." . . . "He's part of the -- .". . . "When are you going to publish the story about -- ?"

Some of the callers, whether identified or anonymous, claim to have detailed, documented information about the private lives of public figures. Others employ an even more insidious technique. They claim that such-and-such a publication or TV network is about to publish/broadcast an explosive story about X, thus appealing to one's inherent competitive journalistic instincts.

In other words, if you don't have it, you'd better get it. Otherwise, be prepared to suffer the professional consequences of being badly beaten on a hot story. So long Washington, hello Dubuque.

This pressure approach provides a new twist on Leo Durocher's famed adage. In journalism, as in sports, nice guys finish last -- or don't finish at all.

Given the Gary Hart debacle and what appears to be America's insatiable hunger for salacious details on lives of what pass for the mighty and the celebrated, these kinds of incidents are perhaps inevitable. But they represent something more than rumor-mongering in the form of malicious gossip.

They are evidence of the further blurring of what constitutes proper inquiry into personal conduct of public figures, especially officials, and of the erosion of standards of propriety, relevance and fairness.

For journalists, the combination of a permissive environment and heightened competitive pressures -- if you don't do it, somebody else will -- presents a particularly difficult problem.

Obviously, knowing about certain aspects of public officials' lives represents a legitimate public interest. Character does count. Personal and professional relationships, particularly with key advisers and associates, are important. State of health, including mental, can be critical in the exercise of power. Full disclosure of private financial resources and obligations of candidates and officials sheds light on apparent conflicts of interest and areas of financial vulnerability.

Beyond these, the lines of responsible inquiry become far harder to determine. In some cases, the inquiries are clearly out of bounds.

The New York Times provided an example of the latter recently when it asked presidential candidates to furnish medical records and waive privacy rights to raw FBI files that are notoriously filled with unsubstantiated hearsay and outright falsehoods -- a request subsequently, and wisely, withdrawn.

For public officials, the problem is how to deal with these questions without adding to the rumor mills by directly addressing the subject. One way, of course, is to keep your house in order. Another was demonstrated recently by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a much-respected member of Congress. He volunteered the fact of his homosexuality in an interview with The Boston Globe, and did so, as far as I know, merely to establish that fact publicly and under no kind of duress. His statement attracted scarce attention nationally and seems to have had no effect on his public career.

Another example involves Vice President Bush.

To quote from the current issue of Newsweek:

"As the nation's political-rumor mill rattled with talk of an impending GOP sex scandal, Vice President George Bush's eldest son and and campaign adviser, George Jr., asked his father point-blank last week if he ever committed adultery: 'You've heard the rumors. What about it?' The veep replied flatly, 'They're just not true.' Says George Jr., 'The answer to the Big A question is N.O.' "

If that proves to be untrue, Bush's credibility and reputation for truthfulness will be destroyed as was Gary Hart's because of the way Hart dealt with questions about his private/public life problems.

So what about it, fellow scribblers and TV news oracles, how do we proceed from here?

I can't speak for anyone else, but I subscribe to Lady Randolph Churchill's standard on how to keep personal behavior private. Said Jennie, who is remembered not for her active extramarital sex life but because she was the mother of Winston Churchill: "Just don't do it on the streets and frighten the horses."