If the doomed Robert Bork looked like a saturnine 19th-century Wagnerian baritone before the Senate Judiciary Committee three years ago, it's tempting to say that David Hackett Souter, nominee to the Supreme Court, was a calm, rational 18th-century Mozartean tenor yesterday as he faced the same ordeal.

But it would be wrong.

But tempting. Souter arrived at the Hart Office Building dressed in the black, gray and white favored by Puritan elders of a few centuries ago: black-and-gray tie and a gray-and-white pin-striped shirt that hung on him as if the collar were way too big, even though it wasn't (maybe it was the way his pin-striped jacket kept riding up). In the great antique New England tradition (he grew up in New Hampshire and went to Harvard, and says "lawr" for "law"), he had his pants cuffed about two inches above his black shoes.

His only sign of vanity, at 50, was a mild comb-over -- pepper-and-salt hair pulled across a bald spot on a big head, so big that his neck looked thin. Maybe it is thin. In any case, his head spreads out from it so acutely that his ears tilt out at angles that remind you a little of E.T., the endearing space creature of the movie.

Think of a combination of E.T. and, say, Calvin Coolidge. With a heavy beard, the best five o'clock shadow since Nixon's.

Except it wasn't either Puritan severity or alien eccentricity that seemed to disarm the senators so, leaving Joe Biden and Teddy Kennedy, the great Bork-slayers, saying "uhh" and looking through their notes for more questions to ask.

And it wasn't the sort of implacable calm that had you wondering if he might be known by New Hampshire prisoners as "Maximum Dave." That thought lasted only until he started talking. It turned out the calm concealed a sense of humor, of the wry, wide-eyed New England variety.

When Biden commented that Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire had done quite a bit of talking in support of the nomination, Souter said: "You should have been staying with him the last 10 days."

When Strom Thurmond cut one answer short, Souter said: "You're going to turn me into a laconic Yankee if you keep doing that."

So no. Not an 18th-century Mozartean or Puritan or E.T. or hanging judge.

Instead, what he really looked like was an oddly fearless substitute teacher coming into a tough class on a rainy day.

In front of him were the grand impatience of the pink-faced Kennedy, the relentless frustrations of Howard Metzenbaum, the cockiness of Paul Simon in his bow tie and valedictorian haircut.

With Biden, the first questioner, Souter demonstrated his knack for taking a tough social issue -- abortion -- and turning it into a legal one. Having already said he wouldn't tip his hand on cases he might have to judge, he turned a question so hot that even Biden seemed shy of it into a discussion of legalia such as second-tier scrutiny and incorporation doctrine.

With Kennedy, who spoke passionately of civil rights, he made his first move to establish turf, to make something clear, to set the rules: "With respect to societal problems, none is more tragic and demanding than ... discrimination in matters of race," he said, adding that for the rest of the hearings he wanted this position "taken as a given."

By the time he got to Metzenbaum he was already taking the class back through the lessons he'd taught in his opening statement, when he named two things he had learned as a judge.

First, he had said, "Whatever court we are in, trial or appellate, at the end of our task, some human life is going to be affected." And second, "If indeed we are going to be trial judges," issuing rulings that affect human lives, "we had better use every power in our being to get those rulings right."

"You remember the second lesson," he said to Metzenbaum. And in case Metzenbaum didn't, Souter went over it again. Moments later, Souter was telling Metzenbaum what he wanted out of these hearings. He wanted a judgment on his open-mindedness. "I will ask you when these hearings are over as to whether I will listen."

Who was this guy, telling the senators what to think and do? And why was he getting away with it?

Instead of the Nibelungs and giants who brought the Wagnerian Bork low, Souter had the senators acting like ... senators. Calm. Rational. Polite in a way that seemed as if they were trying to prove to Souter how polite they could be.

In the middle of the morning session a group of demonstrators rose to shout about gay rights. They were arrested.

"Welcome to Washington, judge," Biden said.

Later, Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire said: "The elegant pundits here inside the Beltway think David Souter may not be quite up to the big time because he drives a clunky old car, because he believes in conserving energy by not mowing his lawn until it begins to block his view when he looks out his window. I believe you'll find David Souter to be as smart as anyone in this city."

And maybe as tough too.