In precisely the time the networks allot for a situation comedy, Senator Jesse Helms polished off a political tour de force Friday, outmaneuvering his colleagues and dealing another blow to former Governor William F. Weld’s dimming prospects for Senate confirmation. In the process, he offered an important lesson in the character of American government.
In refusing to permit Weld a hearing, in shutting down his colleagues’ entreaties, Helms underlined that the American system - so often the object of soaring elegies and stirring anthems - is really only partially democratic.
And though Weld may have suffered an injustice at Friday’s meeting, the Senate is not an institution of justice.
Those notions, central to understanding both American politics and the prospects for the Weld nomination as envoy to Mexico, were on full display in a Senate committee chamber jammed with people and egos.
The rap of the chairman’s gavel - and, just as startling, the enforced silence of the chairman’s opponents - was no aberration.
The system was designed this way. And though the way that Weld and his Senate allies were dismissed may have been shocking, the system worked exactly as its 17th-century architects intended.
More than any event in decades, Friday’s clash - the collision of a quintessentially Eastern intellectual with a quintessentially Southern senatorial baron - underscored the tensions in American politics, tensions the founders understood, but were reluctant to eliminate.
The system, investing extraordinary power in the people, was created by visionaries. The institutions, delegating extraordinary power to leadership, are governed by managers.
Unlike any other public institution in American life, the Senate is a refuge of privilege, prerogative and power, an island just far enough removed from the mainland of American society that it can hear the clamor of public voices but can safely turn its ear and ignore it.
That is one of the glorious qualities of the Senate - and one of the infuriating aspects about it.
The Senate works this way, every day, every week, every year. And the way the Senate Foreign Relations Committee worked Friday underlined one of the tenets of life on Capitol Hill - that where you stand depends on where you sit.
If you support the use of the rules, they are a showcase for integrity. If you do not, they are a tool of demagoguery. If you support the goals of the chairman, then the use of that power is a measure of character. If you do not, it is a measure of cowardice.
“Sometimes democracy does not work very well,” said Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana.
That may be true. But what happened on Capitol Hill Friday wasn’t democracy at work. It was the Senate at work, and that is an entirely different thing.