Old age is a shipwreck, Charles de Gaulle observed as he entered it. The French leader had in mind the infirmities that ravage humans. But the thought applies to expiring governments too: They fall apart, their faculties and abilities scattering to the winds as a neglectful captain wonders what hit his vessel.

So it is with the Clinton administration now that the Senate has rejected a global treaty banning nuclear testing. President Clinton signed the treaty three years ago, only fitfully fought for it and then watched in helpless horror as the Republicans garroted it in a week. This Titanic-size failure will hang over this administration's final confused year in office.

The Senate voted the treaty down 51 to 48 on Wednesday despite panicky warnings from Clinton spokesmen that a "No" vote would rank with the Senate's refusal in 1920 to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. The administration's own characterization of the stakes establishes the magnitude of its failure.

Let's not mistake Dr. Frankenstein for the monster: A handful of Republican extremists blocked a sensible last-minute compromise proposal to delay a ratification vote until the next Congress. They bear primary responsibility for a hideous legislative veto that weakens U.S. credibility and leverage in fighting the spread of weapons of mass destruction overseas.

Unfortunately that handful included Majority Leader Trent Lott, who controls the Senate calendar, and Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The 62 senators who declared Wednesday that they favored a voting delay never had a chance against this dedicated and crafty pair.

But Clinton, his senior aides and Senate Democrats cannot escape sharing responsibility for this fiasco. They wandered into the monster's lair without giving serious thought to where they were going or how they would get out. Their overconfidence in both their own abilities and the obvious rightness of their cause blinded them--not for the first time in this administration.

Minority Leader Tom Daschle got mousetrapped by Lott into agreeing to a debate-and-vote schedule that could be changed only by unanimous consent of the entire Senate. That gave Helms control of the endgame.

The White House reached a new level of incompetence in managing even the truncated presentation it was allowed. Testimony from the administration's nuclear lab directors undercut its case. And Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright "seemed to be going through the motions in her testimony and was completely unpersuasive," in the words of one diplomat usually friendly to her.

In many ways the most interesting part of the administration's biggest legislative failure since the health care debacle belongs to Albright. She has invested years trying to win over or neutralize Helms and other Republican heavyweights on foreign policy. All of them voted against her boss when the chips were down.

Remember that Albright was chosen by the president, at Hillary Clinton's strong urging, to be more an articulator of policy than a maker of policy. Albright's primary job, it was said repeatedly, was to explain complicated issues--such as the test ban treaty--to the American public and to mobilize domestic and congressional support for Clinton's agenda.

Within that overly restrictive frame--an early tip-off that Clinton never intended to give serious weight to Albright's counsel on big issues--the assignment made sense. Albright comes from a background of public advocacy, teaching and congressional relations rather than traditional diplomacy and statecraft.

While serving as Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, she took pride in the time and attention she and her staff lavished on congressional visitors. As secretary of state, she made friendly relations with Helms a cornerstone of her tenure, striking a deal to get Congress to pay nearly $1 billion in back dues to the United Nations. But Helms has raked in his gains and then stood by while his ideological allies have made sure his part of the deal is not fulfilled.

Albright either could not or would not see that deals with Helms go one way only. The failures on the test ban treaty and U.N. dues damage Albright's standing as the Great Communicator on foreign policy and increase the sense that the administration is slipping into political sclerosis, if not senility.

On some issues, such as Iraq, Clinton would have been better off if he had listened to Albright more in private and taken on the burden himself of making the case in public. Presidents should appoint secretaries of state to think as well as talk, and then join them in doing both.