The Senate ethics committee hearing took a turn for the dramatic when Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.), the subject of its inquiry, got to his feet and pleaded with his colleagues to "consider the whole person of Dave Durenberger."

He spoke for an hour. His speech was absurd but affecting. He said he didn't know he was breaking Senate rules, even though his little ruses were custom-tailored, in one case, to avoid limits on honoraria and in another to have the Senate, and thereby the taxpayer, pay rent for a condo he owned in Minnesota.

From what he said, you would hardly know he was a lawyer. He did not answer a single charge. On the matter of the condo, he did not defend himself. He merely kept insisting on how small it was. Besides, he had returned the $11,005 he had collected from the Senate.

He simply threw himself at the feet of his reluctant judges and begged for mercy. He said over and over again that he was sorry. He told his life story; it was full of trouble. His first wife had died at age 31, leaving him with four children under 8.

He has to have been abysmally stupid or imperially arrogant, it seemed, to have done what he did. Yet he did not come through as either.

Durenberger is tall, rosy, confident almost to the point of exuberance. He speaks well and with enjoyment. The first day of the hearing, he did a lot of winking at acquaintances in the press and ocasionally rolled his eyes as if the tedium of the thing were beyond bearing. His lawyer, James Hamilton, had made a lame rebuttal to the searing bill of particulars presented by the special counsel of the ethics committee, Robert S. Bennett.

But when Durenberger finished telling the story of his life, there were many moist eyes in the big hearing room, and the committee looked uncomfortable. Bennett is a short, stout man with his brother's (national drug policy director William Bennett) gift for cutting phrases. He was calm, inexorable, until he had the job of following Durenberger.

He knew his difficulties. The hearing room had just been the site of a cavalry charge, flags flying, bugles sounding, Durenberger galloping from one crisis to another. Bennett was strictly infantry, and he knew it.

He began slowly: A reporter had asked him during the brief recess what he thought of the senator's remarks and Bennett said, "I told him I thought it was wonderful."

Bennett obviously could have poked it full of holes, but that would have been futile, since Durenberger's defense was all holes. "It seems almost inappropriate," said Bennett, "after such dramatic and touching remarks to go back to the evidence." Any other witness he would have reduced to rubble. But Durenberger, despite the warts, is still a member of the club, and he had just given a stellar performance. He had been compelling and believable.

Bennett warily pointed out that "the senator places the blame on everyone else."

It was true that Durenberger had cited many lawyers and advisers he had consulted before making his odd moves on the publishing contract with Piranha Press and the forming of a partnership to which he could sell his Minnesota condo. But he had avoided the mawkish self-pity of that most memorable of speeches from the dock of maximum political peril, the "Checkers" speech of Richard M. Nixon. The senator from Minnesota accepted total responsibility.

There was the suspicion in the room that he might be merely eccentric. How would he dare risk offending the notoriously high-minded voters of Minnesota with such intricate financial maneuvers if he were not? Two mitigating factors stand out: He made no attempt to hide his connivings; he left a paper trail that was deep and wide as that provided in a treasure hunt -- memos, letters, affidavits. And he cooperated fully with the committee; no one denies it.

Was he, as he claimed, too taken up with cosmic problems to notice what was going on? Bennett said, "He is all over the documents and the minutiae." Or did he think the rules were for other people? Did growing up among Benedictine monks make him unwordly? Or did the tragedy of his young first wife's death benumb him to other vicissitudes?

Bennett had 31 witnesses lined up to attest to Durenberger's bizarre financial arrangements. Bennett had 23 volumes of evidence piled up beside him that he said would prove reprehensible conduct on the part of the senator and justify his recommendation of "denouncement" for Durenberger.

"Your obligations," Bennett was obliged to remind the senators after Durenberger's powerful plea for mercy, "are not to him, they are to this great institution."