MONTECITO, CALIF. -- A felicitious and satisfying summer vacation is made up of sunny days spent on a down-filled loveseat before a television set carrying the live testimony of Oliver North and John Poindexter followed by cool nights at the fireside re-reading Henry Adams' "Democracy."

What else, save good food and wine, could a tired soul need for rejuvenation?

Those who have not lately or ever read Adams' 1880 novel, arguably the best piece of fiction about Washington ever written, should do themselves the favor as our season's finest entertainment -- the House-Senate Select Committee hearings into the Iran/contra affair -- sadly comes to a close.

For weeks, as a portrait of the inner workings of Washington's highest offices has been detailed in the Old Senate Caucus Room on Capitol Hill, the public has been in the shoes of Adams' exquisitely drawn heroine, the beautiful widow Mrs. Lightfoot (Madeleine) Lee.

She, like those of us waking early each day to turn on our sets, comes to the Nation's Capital to study the workings of democracy and to find "great men." Anxious to escape the boorish commercialism of New York and uninterested in the entrenched small world of Boston intelligentsia, she is seeking moral idealism, men who do not "grow six inches and then stop" but "grow to be a tree and cast a shadow."

As Mrs. Lee is courted and courts Washington society, she takes a tour of the inner corridors of power that is nearly as fine as that hosted by Inouye, Hamilton, Liman and Nields.

Her giant, the man she meets shortly after hiring her elegant home on Lafayette Square across the street from the White House, is Sen. Silas P. Ratcliffe, a Republican powerhouse likely to win the presidency in due time and modeled by Adams after Sen. James G. Blaine, a potent GOP leader of the 1870s and '80s.

Ratcliffe has the steeliness of Ollie North and the careful calculation of John Poindexter. He tells an anecdote as charmingly as George Shultz. He has the bravado (and figure) of Richard Secord and also, it turns out, the accounting acumen of Albert Hakim.

As Madeleine uncovers his ways, she learns much of what many Americans have been intrigued to learn in our recent weeks of public pedagogy. Haven't we all been sorting through the Lilliputians in search of giants?

Those who doubt the benefits of the Iran-contra hearings mostly miss the point. They are either starved radicals -- thirsting for nothing short of presidential blood and inflamed by the brighter yellow congratulatory telegrams waving across Betsy North's lap. Or wrought-up conservatives who actually believe -- like Poindexter -- that biased press coverage blinded the citizenry to the higher meaning in NSC shenanigans and who view further aid to the contras as the only issue.

In fact, if one listens to comments in the supermarket and hardware store, one finds that most Americans came curious and open-minded to this valuable study. Like Madeleine, they'll decide what they think of the people who run their government and the process by which it's currently run. Equal access to truth is, as Sen. George Mitchell said in his useful summary of the Rule of Law, about the only thing we disparate peoples have as a common heritage. We listen for truth.

Mrs. Lee, a prototypical American character, does likewise. She is wooed quite successfully by Silas Ratcliffe, but she continues to hear those around her -- her sister and the incorruptible Virginia lawyer, John Carrington -- who does not trust him.

When Ratcliffe proposes marriage, Carrington tells Madeleine in writing that Ratcliffe sold a vote for a large donation during the last elections. Madeleine confronts Ratcliffe, who, like Secord/North/Poindexter, admits his deception and claims a higher ground.

The evidence, he says, is "true in its leading facts; untrue in some of its details, and in the impression it creates." Craftily, he continues in what could be a transcript from the real hearings:

"Our defeat {the Republicans, in the presidential election just won} meant that the government must pass into the blood-stained hands of rebels, men whose designs were more doubtful, and who could not, even if their designs had been good, restrain the violence of their followers."

Of the money, Ratcliffe says dismissingly, "I kept myself aloof from the details."

Madeleine allows him to go on at length. Then she explodes with outrage:

"Mr. Ratcliffe! I have listened to you with a great deal more patience and respect than you deserve. For one long hour I have degraded myself by discussing with you the question whether I should marry a man who by his own confession has betrayed the highest trusts that could be placed on him, who has taken money for his votes as a Senator, and who is now in public office by means of a successful fraud of his own, when in justice he should be in State's prison. I will have no more of this.. . . I do not doubt that you will make yourself President, but whatever or wherever you are, never speak to me or recognize me again!"

Forthwith, Ratcliffe finds himself standing in the parlor alone, banished.

It is an interesting footnote that, in the form of a postscript Madeleine attaches to a letter summarizing all of this to Carrington, the author tosses out a fear he seemed to have about Americans in general.

He was not ill-prepared for political generalization. Henry Adams' father was a congressman and ambassador; both his grandfather and great-grandfather were president of the United States.

The last paragraph of young Adams' otherwise optimistic work has Mrs. Lee saying: "The bitterest part of all this horrid story is that nine out of ten of our countrymen would say I had made a mistake."

One hundred years after those words were written, just minutes past the end of an enriching vacation, I respectfully disagree. Mary Anne Dolan is a columnist in Los Angeles. BY SALIH MEMECAN