BARNEY FRANK, congressman. Pete Rose, baseball star. Sousuke Uno, prime minister of Japan. Jim Wright, speaker of the US House of Representatives. Jimmy Swaggart, television evangelist. John Tower, nominee for secretary of defense. Gary Hart, presidential candidate. They are all public figures, all used to privilege and public adulation. One thing more they share in common; their careers have ended, or at least been truncated, with either financial or sexual scandal.
Have their public trials, by press and public opinion, been fair? Not always. Mr. Hart was certainly guilty of extramarital dalliance, but there was some sloppy investigative reporting on the part of the Miami newspaper that nailed him. Mr. Tower had certainly been guilty of earlier indiscretion, but the proof of current misbehavior during his confirmation investigation was fuzzy.
The manner of their going may occasionally have been unfair, but was their downfall just or unjust? That depends on whether a public figure is entitled to a private life. Is everything he does - even in the privacy of his home - eligible for the investigative reporter's scrutiny?
Though there is some journalistic conscience-searching about how far a news organization should go, the trend over the years has been towards greater intrusiveness into a public figure's private life.
John Kennedy conducted affairs with women out of the White House during his presidency. This was known to a few close friends, including some journalists. But no whisper of this found its way into the press during Mr. Kennedy's presidential term. Such silence over a scandal in the White House would be unthinkable today.
The justification for today's intrusive trend is that the private life of a public figure is a legitimate matter for discussion and investigation by the press, and thus the public. What he does privately may affect the way he carries out his mandate from the voters.
There are some anomalies in all this. The columnists and big-city newspaper editors and television anchors who pronounce on the morality of public figures are no less public figures than the public figures they condemn. But they are generally reluctant to disclose their own financial affairs, their own marital problems. Sometimes they explain the difference between themselves and politicians by saying that politicians are elected by the people, and thus accountable to the public. But of course, when news organizations feel their freedom of speech stifled, their executives frequently argue that they are the ``voice of the people,'' albeit unelected.
All this reflection is occasioned by the recent admission by Mr. Frank that he responded to a sexual solicitation advertisement in a homosexual magazine, that the male prostitute he found through the ad later moved into Frank's Washington apartment and worked for him, and that the prostitute later, unknown to the congressman, conducted a sex-for-hire service from the apartment. Frank says there was no use of public funds, and no misuse of his position. He argues that what he did in private in no way diminished his effectiveness as a congressman.
There is some legalistic debate about whether Frank broke any laws, but the overriding question is whether this kind of private life is morally compatible with the standards a congressman is supposed to maintain.
Congressional reaction is complicated by the fact that Frank has been considered one of the brightest of the Democrats' liberals. Whether he stays in Congress, or leaves, that upward course will be reversed.
This has nothing to do with Frank's self-proclaimed homosexuality. The issue is his involvement in prostitution and his bad judgment in installing a prostitute in his home.
Anyone caught up in such a terrible human drama deserves some compassion. But the voters deserve better than this from the men who represent them. Frank should go, preferably by his own resignation.