The language of silence is powerful. We use it to mourn or to protest. It can be a sign of acquiescence, or a shield to maintain control.

When you think about it, silence isn't necessarily so silent after all.

But don't tell that to a presidential nominee for a high-level post, especially a controversial one. Democrat or Republican, it doesn't matter in today's confirmation wars.

Such people don't get to the top of a president's shortlist by being quiet. They always play their A-game, assertive and self-assured. Speaking their mind is what they do.

But answer a president's call to serve on his Cabinet, on the federal bench or even as an ambassador, and you enter a zone of silence. It is that period between the announcement of your nomination and taking your seat before a Senate committee in which you face intense scrutiny, supporters and opponents in motion, and learn firsthand what it feels like to be muzzled. (Even while you're being coached and rehearsed.)

In the silent zone, you cannot speak. You are strongly advised to forgo interviews and to resist the impulse to explain what you meant when you said what you said. You don't fire from the silent zone, either, even when fired upon. That's what the handlers are for. They sing your praises and attempt to vanquish your critics.

Call it Beltway ventriloquism.

Looking at it that way is all wrong, says the White House. "The purpose of our policy is to respect the senators and the confirmation process," says spokesman Dana Perino.

Nonetheless, with John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's choice to fill the Supreme Court seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the debate has been whether his reticence goes too far.

For so many others, though, keeping their mouths shut can be a test of body and soul -- even if it ultimately does get them the job. In 1997, President Clinton nominated James C. Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Before the ordeal was over nearly two years later, the openly gay philanthropist and heir to the Hormel meatpacking fortune would be accused of being anti-Catholic and of promoting porn and pedophilia.

Last week, Hormel began a phone conversation about that part of his life with something of an apology. It had been six years since Clinton finally ended his nomination agony by giving him a recess appointment. He was worried his recollections might be a little off. But it was soon clear that he remembered quite a bit, in great detail.

"When questions arise and they are in public, when they challenge a person's qualifications or integrity . . . it is very tempting to respond," he says. "It is very tempting to regard challenges to one's nomination as personal."

(According to Hormel's partner, Timothy Wu, Sen. Jesse Helms [R-N.C.] sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a letter to make sure that Wu would have no official role in embassy functions or have any of his expenses paid with U.S. tax dollars.)

For all the trials and tribulations, Hormel did get the job. John Tower, Lani Guinier and so many others didn't.

Republican Linda Chavez went through the process twice, once in a bitter fight as a 1983 Ronald Reagan nominee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She, too, ended up being a recess appointment.

The Democrat-turned-Republican faced serious opposition the second time too, when George W. Bush nominated her to be his secretary of labor. "It's hard . . . to rely on others to be able to tell your story for you," she says. "You know that every line you've ever written, every statement you've ever made in public, is going to be fodder."

When Bush offered her the Cabinet post, she says, "one of the things he talked about was how it was going to be tempting to shoot back, and he basically suggested that I not do it. That I try to hold my fire."

She didn't have to hold it for long. Chavez withdrew after a week, when it was reported that she had given shelter to an undocumented worker. It had shades of Zoe Baird's "Nannygate" uproar in the Clinton years. "I remember in my week-long nomination there were things taken very much out of context," she says, to which she could not respond.

Is it naive to wonder why capable, smart people who've built careers speaking for themselves can't continue doing that -- especially when they're at such a critical moment in their careers?

"It sure as hell would be refreshing," Leon Panetta says from his offices at the Panetta Institute, a nonpartisan public policy program at California State University, Monterey Bay.

"It would be, obviously, a lot more honest. The problem is I'm not sure how you get back to that kind of world."

A former Clinton chief of staff, Panetta knows what a confirmation fight can look like from the inside. "There clearly was a time when people could be a lot more honest, not only with the questions but the responses," he says. "The problem is that now the process has become just another element in the continual trench warfare that's been going on in Washington."

In war, the object is to win.

"The fundamental goal of the nomination process is to ensure that the nominee" avoids providing "the opponents with any substance that they'd be able to use to bring them down," he says.

That takes a lot of preparation, a lot of coaching, a lot of practice. "In the end, it's a little bit like a lawyer and a trial. When you ask a question, you do not want to be surprised."

Not being surprised means keeping your mouth shut as much as possible.

"It's a difficult period, particularly for someone who hasn't been . . . exposed to political attacks on a regular basis," Panetta says. "Some of them will say, 'I can't allow this attack to go unanswered.' . . . Then the White House guy says, relax, let us figure out how to respond to that attack, but in no way should you directly respond. . . . You would basically fall into the trap that the opponents have set."

John Danforth knows about trying to offer comfort in a crisis. He was a Republican senator from Missouri escorting his friend Clarence Thomas through what he says at first seemed like a smooth Supreme Court confirmation process. Then came that unexpected standoff between Thomas and Anita Hill over her charges of sexual harassment.

"It was just dreadful," Danforth says from his law offices in St. Louis. "My Senate office during the weekend of the second hearings was virtually a campground of people who had known Clarence for a long time, including many women who had worked with him.

"I had known him for quite a while. I think I was more of his longtime friend than simply somebody taking him around the Senate," says Danforth, who'd employed Thomas several times in his career. "It wasn't very hard until the end . . . when the disaster hit."

Thomas, he says, was distraught.

"He was sobbing. He was in the fetal position. He couldn't eat, he couldn't sleep. . . . He couldn't understand how this could happen to him. . . . At that point, instead of discouraging him from speaking, I encouraged him."

There was actually a time when the Senate and the public didn't hear from nominees at all, says Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.

The reasons, he says, were rooted in etiquette and practicality.

"In the 19th century, the office was supposed to seek the man, not the man seek the office. Their records and their friends were supposed to speak for them. That wasn't just true for judicial nominees but executive branch nominees as well."

As a rule, the Senate discussions about nominees that did take place occurred in closed session until 1929, Ritchie says. "Reporters used to find out immediately what went on in the closed sessions." After a while senators realized they couldn't maintain secrecy, he says, and closed sessions became the exception.

What hasn't changed, Ritchie notes, is the fighting over judicial nominees, which dates to George Washington's presidency. Unhappy with a speech John Rutledge had given, the Senate denied him the position of chief justice.

There have been more than 500 Cabinet nominees, and fewer than 5 percent have been rejected, Ritchie says. There have been fewer than 200 Supreme Court nominations, and about 25 percent of those have been withdrawn or rejected.

"The Cabinet is perceived to be the president's creation and he should have his advisers. The Supreme Court is an independent branch and a lifetime appointment. They have always treated them in a different category. The acrimony today has intensified, but it's always been there."

It's hard to pin down exactly when the modern era of acrimony -- and the subsequent handling of nominees -- began, but conventional wisdom traces it back 18 years, to the experiences of the man now finishing a cracker as he answers the phone in his McLean home.

Robert Bork is straightforward, his deep voice even and measured. He declines an offer to call back. "It doesn't take that long to finish" his wafer, he insists.

This is the man to whom the expression "borked" can be traced. As the definition goes in some circles, it means to be smeared, unfairly attacked. But it would depend on which side of the ideological fence you stand when it comes to using that word.

"If borked means fulfilling your constitutional duty by protecting the rights and freedoms of the American people, then every senator should wear that as a badge of honor," says Stephanie Cutter, an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who fired off a speech on the Senate floor attacking Bork on issues such as abortion and civil rights.

Whatever your position, the strategies for getting a judge confirmed today, Bork and others speculate, is based on a simple formula: Look at Bork's confirmation process and do the opposite.

"Yes, it's true," Bork says. He had always been a conservative and outspoken judge with a long paper trail of controversial writings that could be pored over. It didn't help that at his hearings he came off as arrogant and distant.

John Roberts, though, may be well on his way to being "soutered." Where Bork was outspoken, David H. Souter, elevated to the Supreme Court in 1990, was reserved. So is Roberts. Where Bork left a paper trail, Souter had little to be read. Although Roberts's work as a lawyer in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations is well documented, he has a short record as a judge. (Citing attorney-client privilege, the White House has refused to release files from Roberts's time as a young attorney in the inspector general's office.)

Roberts appears to have a far stronger level of support from the Bush administration than Bork had from the Reagan administration, Bork believes. "I wouldn't have minded if someone had answered the false allegations that were being made," he says now.

"I don't recall any instructions" from the White House, Bork says. "When the slander started with Kennedy's statement right after I was nominated, they never reacted at all. During the summer and during the course of the hearings, they never said a word."

He didn't speak publicly, Bork says, because he didn't feel it appropriate.

"A lot of newspapers and magazines came to see me. The ground rule was that I wouldn't discuss any substantive issues with them."

"Maybe I should have viewed it as a political campaign and campaigned, but I didn't," he says.

What particularly irritated Bork was the suggestion that he and his wife do an interview with Barbara Walters as the situation was unraveling. "There was some theory that it would humanize me or something. I thought that was undignified, and I didn't do it."

"If we were going down," he says, "at least we could do so with some dignity."

He was imposing his own zone of silence.

James C. Hormel (far left, with partner Timothy Wu) and Linda Chavez know the difficulties of adhering to a gag rule for nominees.