Welcome to Washington, ladies and gentlemen, capital of the Free World, seat of government of the world's oldest continuously practicing democracy, leader of . . . .

Oh, you know the rest.

At a private dinner this week, a group of leading figures from Wall Street gathered for an annual assessment of the state of the economy and to take the political pulse of Washington. A prominent financier stood, picked up a banana from the table and said, "This is where we are. We're becoming a banana republic."

On the radio, while driving to work, members of the federal anthill heard a talk-show host make two quick quips. In a play on American Express commercials, he said, "Instead of saying, 'Don't leave home without it,' just say, 'Don't leave home.' It may not be there when you come back." Next, the announcer played with the name of a well-known local savings bank. "Have you heard?" he asked. "They've changed their name." Pause. "It's no longer Perpetual. Now it's Temporary."

Also airing here these days is a television commercial that extols the virtues of Volvos by saying, "We put air bags in cars, not in Congress."

And, in a typical response to last week's observation here that Will Rogers would be chuckling at the Marx Brothers machinations during the federal budget fiasco, a reader in Columbia, writes, "How ridiculous the world must find us!"

Hardly a person in the capital, and perhaps in the country, hasn't had a similar reaction. Their leaders' political missteps are metaphors for the times, and taken at face value, the times are not encouraging. The present spectacle of representative democracy at work is laughable, in a clenched-teeth sort of way, and even a bit frightening. Is it as bad as it seems? Are we slipping down the slope? Whither America? Which way Imperial Rome?

The answers are, yes, it's bad, and, no, these aren't necessarily the signals of a political system in decline or disintegration.

Whistling past the grave, plucking silver threads from among the heavy gray clouds, you say? Perhaps, but there's good reason to make a more positive case about America's health, vitality and creativity.

While public attention focuses on the slapstick aspects of Washington, three American economists have won the Nobel Prize for their original work over the last two decades. Those awards, announced Wednesday, came a week after two American doctors were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for their work in pioneering use of organ and cell transplants to treat the severely ill.

As science reporter Malcolm Gladwell noted in The Washington Post, "This year marks the second consecutive year that Americans have swept the prizes for medicine. In all, Americans have won or shared 69 of the 142 medicine awards since 1901. Great Britain is second with 17 winners."

On Thursday, an American won the chemistry prize, and two shared physics honors with a Canadian.

These awards, the world's most prestigious, continued a trend of American preeminence in intellectual and creative endeavors. From January 1980 to December 1989, for instance, 40 Americans won Nobels in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics and literature and, even, for peace.

Nor, lest we forget, the same political system now the object of such scorn and mockery is the very one that recently -- and deservedly -- was celebrated as a model for the world. From Tiananmen Square to East Berlin, and even in Managua and Moscow, expressions of democratic ideals vibrate throughout the consciousness of people seeking the kinds of freedoms that Americans take for granted.

Americans have every reason to feel immense pride in the triumph of their form of democratic government in the ideological competition of the Cold War and amid the rush of other societies to emulate the U.S. political-economic system. The recent notion that America no longer was a world leader had to be revised because of the U.S. role in forging a multinational response to Iraqi aggression. This transformation was accomplished, with no little irony, by the same president now broadly condemned for domestic ineptitude.

Even the sometimes appalling scenes televised from Capitol Hill are not without redeeming aspects. Behind the absurd political posturing, a real debate about America's purpose, its values and its past and future social-economic policies finally is taking place. It isn't tidy or elevating, but neither is democracy in action. Democracy, as has been noted, is a bit like sausage-making: upsetting to watch, but in the end usually worth sampling.