Rep. Stewart B. McKinney, a nine-term member of Congress from Fairfield County, Conn., liked to say he was just "a former tire salesman." But that self-effacing manner and his low national profile belied the high standing he had achieved on Capitol Hill since he left his thriving tire firm in 1971 to go into politics. A Princeton-and Yale-educated Republican representing one of the nation's richest districts, McKinney, 56, was a champion of the nation's poor and homeless. He was respected by his colleagues as a principled, compassionate legislator—"the genuine article," to quote Sen. Christopher Dodd (D. Conn.). Last week he was mourned by those colleagues as Congress's first known victim of AIDS. And in the days following his death the lawmakers got a firsthand view of how this scourge, while crossing all social and economic boundaries, also is rewriting the rules of privacy and propriety.

Because McKinney was neither a celebrity like Rock Hudson nor a self-styled moralist like conservative fund raiser Terry Dolan, both of whom also died of AIDS, he was spared a siege of innuendo during his illness. No one seemed eager to question his 37-year-marriage to Lucie Cunningham McKinney, who stayed in Connecticut to raise their five children. Yet as soon as McKinney died, his physician, Dr. Cesare Caceres, announced that the lawmaker probably contracted AIDS from transfusions during 1979 heart bypass surgery. To anyone who knew of McKinney's homosexuality, Caceres' statement appeared to be deliberately misleading. The next day's Washington Post reported that McKinney had had homosexual liaisons.

In fact, sources say, he was a well-established figure in the gay social circles that, thanks to a strict code of silence, have for years remained one of Capitol Hill's best-kept secrets. Now even that code is bending under the pressures of the AIDS epidemic.

Though McKinney chose to spare himself and his family the publicity of a deathbed confession, he knew the truth would come out. But "he wanted us to look forward and not look behind," Lucie McKinney said in a somber but loving statement after his death., "To find a cure for this disease, however, we look at how people get it."