IT HAS BEEN a fight between the club and the country all along.

Things more or less came to a head early last week when Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) rose to the defense of the Keating Five with a warning to his fellow senators that they were all in it together: "The Senate is on trial."

One of the Keating Five, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), whose constituent services to S&L tycoon Charles Keating bordered on the slavish, was moved to tears. Not so the watching public.

They called in and questioned Inouye's right to be there. He knew little about the case and advanced arguments they had rejected. Inouye said his staff and his family were dubious about his appearance.

They may have wondered what Inouye would have said had one of the club members come before the Iran-Contra committee inquiry -- which he chaired, and botched -- and told him to stop picking on Oliver North or Ronald Reagan. Or they may have wondered if his unusual intervention in praise of conduct that was, at a miniumum highly questionable, meant that the Democrats were willing to give up the S&L scandal as an issue.

This is an internal club matter, he was telling the uncomfortable members of the Senate Ethics Committee in his soothing baritone. This is precisely what they want to hear, and might even say readily, were not millions of viewers looking over their shoulders on C-Span.

The difficulties of managing affairs in a democracy is also on view on the second C-Span channel, which is taking to the country the current debate over war and peace in the Middle East. It is maddening, of course, for people at the top to have the world know about unfolding events at the exact same moment they are learning about them. And it is even more maddening, for George Bush and James Baker, to have Saddam Hussein tune in on hearings where Democratic senators, declining to get with the Bush program and neglecting to follow the lead of the United Nations Security Council, are vehemently questioning the wisdom of going to war against him.

Secretary of State Baker was telling the House Armed Services Committee that diplomacy and the use of force are like love and marriage -- "complementary," not contradictory. Some members were obdurately of the view that the use of force eliminated diplomacy and vice versa, but the administration -- hell-bent, it seems on proving its non-wimphood -- hurtles on. All the same, we are in an era of C-Span diplomacy, when secret cables and closed-door meetings don't count for all that much, and the "If you-knew-what-I-knew" portentousness of a Kissinger off-the-record briefing can't produce the old shivers. The Senate Ethics Committee might wish that the public were a little less hooked on the hearings. No good, they doubtless think, can come of their kibitzing. Viewers are merciless towards the Five but then, with that ambivalence that is so profoundly American, they were also indignant in the early days about Robert Bennett, the committee's special counsel whom they found to be "nasty and sarcastic" -- although they agreed with his drift.

They blew hot and cold about the central witness, Ed Gray, former head of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the hapless fellow whom the Five summoned before them while DeConcini dickered for a deal in behalf of Keating. Viewers liked Gray a lot when they first heard him but cooled after the defendants' expensive lawyers worked him over. Those who had their life savings wiped out in S&L collapses follow the matter closely and knew that Gray's expense accounts didn't bear close examination. Of course, he could not compete with King Keating, who once spent $2,495 for dinner for five -- on us -- at Le Cirque.

By far the most impressive witness to date was Ed Gray's subordinate, William K. Black, a regulator for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, who was looking at Keating's Lincoln S&L books and finding maggots and worms until Gray's successor, M. Danny Wall, decided that the investigation would be better done in Washington, for reasons he could not adequately explain.

Black is dark, bearded, succinct. He said something the members of the Senate Ethics Committee hoped they would not ever hear, something that took the discussion out of mere impropriety into wrongdoing.

"This is an institution," he said of Lincoln, "that is probably the worst institution in America, and instead of people trying to help bring it under control, five U.S. senators were pushing us in the opposite direction."

This is strong stuff to put up against Inouye's "everybody does it" plaint. He can say that the outrageous is commonplace if he wants to, but the public, which hasn't given up entirely on Congress, would rather not agree.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.