Everyday now tests the nerve, the fiber and the judgment of Washington. You can see the strain etched deep on the faces of the people who are struggling with the question of war and peace in the Persian Gulf.

When he came into the White House briefing room to comment on the failure of the Iraqi-U.S. meeting in Geneva, the president's skin looked pasty, the twist in his mouth exaggerated almost into a grimace. Standing unobserved to the side, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's head slumps a bit toward his chest, and you are reminded that this man has a history of coronary troubles.

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Tom Foley's hard-won slimness -- the product of a rigid diet -- suddenly leaves him looking not trim, but gaunt. And Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole shows his age too. The arm and shoulder shattered in World War II fighting appear to be acting up, shooting pain through his nerve ends as he talks of the battles to come.

January in the capital is normally a time when the people in power look sleek and tan and rested, back from their holiday relaxation in Florida or Texas, California or Hawaii, swapping tales of the bowl games they saw, the hunting and fishing they enjoyed, the golf courses they tamed. But not this year. There was no real rest, not at the Camp David presidential retreat and not at the customary watering spots for the others in government.

There hasn't been a year that began with such a burden of bad news since the January of 1942, when the Japanese were marching through the Philippines and advancing on Singapore, the Germans were deep in the Ukraine and FDR was worrying about how to protect the West Coast from invasion while he rebuilt the Navy that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor the previous month.

This time, it is the threat of war rather than the reality of conflict that has cast a pall on the capital. But even before that threat grew imminent, it was a bad week, a really bad week. The Bank of New England was taken over by the government after a run on its deposits. Pan Am, the company that represented glamour in air travel since the days of the Clippers, was forced into bankruptcy. The accelerating recession pushed the federal budget $50 billion deeper into deficit and played havoc with the budgets of one after another of the newly inaugurated governors.

To top it all, the Soviet Union was dissolving before our eyes, and Mikhail Gorbachev -- the laureate of what must be the most premature and misjudged Nobel Peace Prize ever -- was sending in the troops in a futile attempt to quash the nationalist forces that have emerged from the Baltic republics to central Asia.

All this was in people's minds as they gathered around television sets to watch Secretary of State James A. Baker III's news conference from Geneva on Wednesday afternoon. The longer his meeting with Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz lasted, the more hopes grew. This was not a perfunctory exchange of positions, the phone calls from supposedly informed people said, but serious, substantive talks.

At lunchtime in the capital, the word spread that the talks had ended, and Baker would soon announce the results. He came onto the TV screen poker-faced, giving no hint of his mood. The first five sentences of his statement were studiedly neutral in tone and substance -- a recital of previously known principles.

Then he said: "Regrettably," and even before the rest of the sentence followed, a collective sigh was heard as thousands of dashed hopes were swept away by one adverb. By the time Baker, the consummate pro, described what Bush later called the "total stiff-arm" he had received from Saddam Hussein's envoy, the gloom was thick enough to cut.

Aziz's subsequent news conference -- part obfuscation, part bluster, part chilling fatalism -- demonstrated exactly the quality of obduracy Baker had described. Bush's own nervous and occasionally erratic meeting with reporters added to the gloom -- "I can't misrepresent this to the American people. I am discouraged" -- while doing little to clarify his next steps. It simply showed the strain of crisis on him.

Now the issue moves to Capitol Hill, where the ruling Democrats present their usual spectacle of disarray. The chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees are supporting the president, but they cannot persuade their own leaders -- the speaker and the majority leader -- that their judgment is correct. The situation among Senate Democrats is less confused, but essentially tells the president only to check in again for further instructions.

Through the strain, the fatigue and the gloom, one principle stands clear: The president, speaking for an international coalition and armed with the authority of the United Nations, has defined U.S. policy from the only place in government where it can be set. The best hope of salvaging peace is a strong statement of congressional support for his policy, so that Saddam Hussein can understand the terrible alternative he faces.

And then the United States must be prepared to pay the price world leadership requires.