Let's hear it for the establishment, at least as it is personified by Secretary of State George Shultz, who was measured and solid and not terribly charismatic but very, very reassuring in his testimony at the Iran-contra hearings yesterday.

No whistles, no bells, no dinner theater histrionics or selected scenes from "The Caine Mutiny." Just hours of the kind of slow-and-steady that one hopes still is capable of winning races. After the spleeny showboating of jackrabbit Ollie North, and the disdainful pipe-puffing elitism of John Poindexter, the secretary of state's appearance on live TV had the effect of restoring confidence in the process and the processors, even though much of it was dramatic and impassioned.

When the day ended, a viewer who'd been following this unnervingly and entertainingly nutty saga through the weeks and months of hearings so far might well have felt the urge to intone a benediction (with apologies to Mel Brooks): "May the Shultz be with us."

If these guys were singers, North would have been Al Jolson (or maybe Ozzy Osbourne, who bites live bats), Poindexter was Maria Callas, or some other temperamental old diva, and Shultz was Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Ah yes: back to basics, back to the standards, back to simple sanity.

As Shultz outlined the "battle royal" that had been waged within the Reagan administration -- a battle for its soul, it might be said -- the story seemed to be shaping up along convenient (and revised) good guy/bad guy lines, something we expect from television. North and Poindexter, and the late CIA director William Casey, had, it seemed clear from Shultz's narrative, been running amok, and Shultz was the little red hen trying to keep catastrophe at bay.

For his efforts, Shultz said, convincingly, he was branded disloyal to the president by arrogant true believers who masterminded the Iran-contra operation. "I frankly felt that I was the one who was loyal to the president, because I was trying to get him the facts so he could make a decision," Shultz said, his eyes glistening.

Later he described a private meeting with Ronald Reagan in the family quarters of the White House in which he tried to apprise the president of the chicanery that was afoot. "It was bark off, all the way," Shultz said of the meeting.

As you watch this and listen to the gory details, suddenly all those Allen Drury novels and paranoid movies about capital conspiracies seem not nearly as far-fetched as you might like them to. Asked if he were "back in charge" of foreign policy now, Shultz said, "It's a fight all the way, all the time, and that's life in Washington."

What do you want to bet that a whole slew of unpublished Washington novels that had been interred in agents' desks, not to mention a passel of unproduced movie scripts with political themes, will get the green light now -- now that these incredible hearings have focused the nation's hummingbird-size attention span on Washington once again?

In the afternoon, Shultz derided the deal made by the conspirators and, supposedly, kept from the president, suggesting it was the work of renegade amateurs. "Our guys" got "taken to the cleaners," he scoffed. "It's pathetic; it's so lopsided, it's crazy," he said, and literally tossing aside a plan for further covert operations that had been found in Ollie North's safe, Shultz said, "This is a piece of junk, and it ought to be treated that way."

What viewers saw was "a more candid, a more relaxed, a more open George Shultz than we have seen in the past," said ABC's Peter Jennings, "and, to take him at his word, than we are going to see in the future." ABC was on the air most of the day with Shultz's testimony even though, according to the network rotation plan for gavel-to-gavel coverage, CBS was the network of record. ABC will be back with more Shultz testimony this morning; it's officially ABC's turn again.

Elise Adde, ABC News spokesman in New York, said ABC was "a little surprised" that CBS signed off at 5:59 p.m. yesterday, about seven minutes before Shultz actually finished testifying. Adde said that according to the rotation plan, CBS should have stayed on to the end of the coverage. Both CNN and PBS remained for the closing minutes of Shultz's appearance.

ABC itself had signed off at 5:30 so that its affiliates could begin their local newscasts, but it wasn't officially ABC's day. CBS News Washington bureau chief Jack Smith said anchor Dan Rather signed off just before 6 p.m. so that CBS affiliates could begin their evening newscasts on the hour.

"I think there should be that latitude," Smith said. "ABC went off at 5:30 themselves. I don't see what we did as failing to fulfil our obligation."

Of all the networks, ABC, currently smarting under heavy losses, is the one that can least afford to add a day of coverage on its own, and so its decision to go on the air with Shultz yesterday, and stay on, is particularly commendable. NBC, with by far the rosiest profit picture of any network, chose to cling to its regular schedule of soaps and game shows.

ABC News Executive Vice President David Burke said he felt it was the right decision and one that -- once he and ABC News President Roone Arledge made their case -- met with "no resistance whatsoever" from the top management at ABC/Cap Cities. "Just because we go to rotation does not mean we give up our editorial judgment," Burke said.

ABC had the option of signing off after the morning session if it hadn't proven productive or compelling, Burke said, but it was decided on the basis of what Shultz said to return for more coverage in the afternoon. "I'm very happy that we did it," said Burke. "This was a very important witness who gave very important testimony."

On CBS, Rather was again visibly and audibly impressed with the unfolding drama, labeling Shultz's testimony as "fascinating" and "explosive" -- revealing as it did tales of "lying, double-dealing and back-stabbing in the corridors of power." Rather is never guilty of underdramatization. But he didn't seem to be overdoing it, either. This was primo drama, and it put into new perspective the pop-journalism acclaim for North as some kind of hero.

Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), in his questioning, told Shultz, "You stand for honor and decency and observance of the law in government" and the "real heroes" are those who dare to "speak up to the president" without fear of incurring his disfavor. "You are such a hero, Mr. Secretary," Rudman said.

Even though he recounted the abuse and scorn he suffered for refusing to go along with the Poindexter scheme (one petty bureaucrat, since fired, even tried to keep Shultz from getting a plane for official business), Shultz didn't seem self-aggrandizing. He appeared more concerned with protecting and defending the president. As a result, Reagan, too, came out of yesterday's testimony looking good -- or at least better than he has lately.

He seemed less the dupe and more the victim. If the Iran-contra plan had been presented directly to the president for his approval, Shultz said, "he would have told them to get lost."

As the day wound down, Shultz proved that a witness didn't have to be flashy or emotive to be compelling. In what is apparently his trademark blue shirt and green tie, he looked earnest and dedicated, and North and Poindexter appeared even more devious in retrospect. How can anyone disbelieve a man who says to the committee, as Shultz did near day's end, that he hoped the testimony could wrap up today because "I'd like to have a nice weekend in the country"?