This is a peculiar time in political Washington. It is hagridden by uncertainties and apprehension. "Do you think there is going to be a war?" That is one of the most frequently exchanged questions. The other is "How bad do you think it is going to be?" -- meaning the coming recession. People here seem to sense something menacing and inevitable, but as yet unseen, advancing in their direction. In some respects their constant querying seems less a quest for expert judgment than for reassurance. We are like those anxious characters in the suspense movies who have just heard an unmistakable creaking on the stair.

The trouble is that this is 1990, and when we think of war and recession -- or depression, as it may turn out to be -- our models are rusty. People can't quite imagine what they mean by war in the Gulf. The Vietnam model, which I don't think is very useful here, is of course being consciously invoked by some and just sort of unwittingly called to mind by others. But: the terrain is different -- desert versus jungle -- and the political geography is wholly different too. Nevertheless, anti-Vietnam arguments are being used against our taking military action in the Gulf. I don't say this argues for our taking military action there, only that it doesn't even connect with the question, let alone dispose of it.

Our models for the economic downturn (or avalanche, depending on how you see it) are no better. The most recent recessions have been relatively short-lived, politically charged periods of selective hardship. Vast segments of the society were untouched. And for a lot of the politicians, the main remembrance is merely of a rearrangement of the balance of power in Congress and some statehouses after the midterm elections. The Great Depression of the '30s, though much broader and deeper and more devastating in impact, is also fatally flawed as guide to what may be coming. The society and the economy are too drastically changed from the '30s for it to be much help. We are entangled with the economies, financial structures and trade of foreign countries in a degree unimaginable then. And we are also beginning to suspect that some of the domestic financial institutions created during the Great Depression specifically to protect against future such disasters may have been fatally compromised and corrupted in recent years. Witness the S&L outrage.

The principal sentiment I detect in Washington now about both these prospects -- war and depression -- is a feeling of inability to control their advent, mixed with an air of surprise that both may turn out to be real after all. The huge deployment of forces to the Gulf has had a kind of fictional quality here -- it was something people saw on the news and argued about in the political arena. I know that has hardly been true of the Pentagon and the military installations around the area, but for political Washington it has been.

This is also the case with the economic bad news. Not incidentally our awakening may have something to do with the fact that this time around, as distinct from, say, 1982, the local economy appears to be taking a big hit, so Washington won't enjoy its vaunted immunity anymore. But the dawning of the reality of recession this time owes at least as much to the indisputable evidence throughout the economy. Somewhat like the earlier, detached, not quite believing attitude toward the deployment in the Gulf, there had been (for a much longer time) an abstract preoccupation in Washington politics with the imminence of downturn. It was predicted by some with cuckoo-clock regularity, disputed by others who crowed loudly when it failed to materialize and, altogether, took on the aspect of some imaginary preoccupation that was the source of a good game. Now the players are looking grim and sounding less authoritative.

One more thing these two chilling prospects have in common: no one is romanticizing them. There is a whole literature of romance about the Great Depression, based on what is remembered as a shared national experience that brought out feelings of solidarity and community among people. And there is a comparable nostalgia for the unity of purpose as well as the confidence, even pride, in our cause that animated the public in World War II. As individuals, as classes, as ethnic groups, as political participants, we have become much more a nation of independent operators since then. Our leaders have tended to melt in the face of this tendency, to shy away from insisting on our collectivity or our responsibility to one another, playing instead to each of our various parochial concerns.

For once, I think, the questions that are troubling people in this city are the same ones that resonate throughout the country: Will there be war? How bad will the downturn be? Inside or outside the infamous Beltway just about nobody knows what the right analogies are as we face the prospect of combat and of economic ordeal. People don't know what to imagine and, thus, what to expect. We have been living a long time in the age of no-consequences politics, wherein we and our leaders have acted in the happy illusion that the dangers everyone knew were present somehow just wouldn't materialize. Now it is time for those who presume to be running things to step up to their duty, which is (1) to accept responsibility for the outcome of their policy and (2) to explain what the values at stake are and what they think the country must do.

You hear a good deal of talk about how this isn't a fair demand because the public are all a bunch of mindless overindulgers and jingoists themselves, and the leaders they elect only reflect their irresponsibility and on and on. I say: Tough -- the leaders asked for the job, now they've got it and they should do it. From the Hill as well as the White House people need to hear articulate, reasoned explanation of what we are doing in the Gulf and where we are going at home. The truth will be a better basis for any actions our government feels it must take than a bunch of half-muffled calls to support a half-explained purpose. And no matter how bad it is, the truth probably won't be more alarming than the fantasies that are swirling in people's heads now.