Turn on the television set these days, and you'll find the Persian Gulf crisis transformed into a Hollywood Western melodrama such as "High Noon" or "Shane." Before our eyes, live and in color, the clock relentlessly ticks away the days and hours and ultimately seconds before the final showdown -- and shootout.

On CBS Wednesday night, for example, Dan Rather began his 1991 newscasts live from the desert sands behind a slogan superimposed on the screen:

Countdown To Confrontation

Below, in smaller type, viewers read:

14 Days

On New Year's Eve, during a break in the football action in one of those interminable nationally televised bowl games, this one from El Paso, an announcer highlighted the presence of U.S. soldiers in the stands. The uniformed GIs were there courtesy of the game's commercial sponsor and new namesake, the John Hancock insurance company, the announcer told the viewing audience.

Then, while the cameras panned rows of cheering, waving soldiers, the sportscaster pointed to a mural painted across the stadium wall. Depicted was an eagle swooping down on prey. Helpful as ever, while the cameras slowly played across the mural, the sportscaster read aloud the message spelled out there: "Go Desert Shield, Beat Iraq."

Elsewhere, benumbed watchers of games collegiate and professional saw players sporting American flags on helmets, further proof of Official Football's sponsorship of patriotism.

Therein were perfect blendings of dominant traits in the Media Age: football as expression of valued national character, the quest to be No. 1, the winning-is-everything philosophy and TV news as mass entertainment.

Those scenes typify another enhanced-by-TV attitude about the Persian Gulf crisis: It's all a game.

It's not a game, of course, and fast-moving but inconclusive developments in the last 24 hours only underscore a sense that gulf-related events now have a life and momentum of their own.

Americans rising for the new day yesterday saw network TV shows suddenly shift to the White House. Press secretary Marlin Fitzwater announced that President Bush had made "one last attempt to go the extra mile for peace" by trying to arrange a personal meeting between top diplomats of the United States and Iraq. At the same time, Fitzwater reiterated the prevailing White House hard-line in what sounded like a final ultimatum. There would be no negotiations, no attempt to save face, no reward for aggression if and when an Iraqi-U.S. meeting took place, he said, making one wonder what purpose a meeting could have.

Within three hours, the TV cameras brought another somber scene into homes and offices.

Bush had just briefed congressional leaders at the White House. Their session ended in a stalemate.

The president had not persuaded them that military power must be used now, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said, and the leaders had not persuaded the president that he should pursue a policy of patience before commencing combat.

As a result, Congress too became caught up in the crisis countdown. Instead of recessing at the end of the first day, as is customary after convening a new session, members of the 102nd Congress now will be in the extraordinary position of waiting in political limbo. They too must watch the clock and wait to see whether the president will ask their authority to wage war or decide to initiate combat without their approval. Looming in the background is a showdown over constitutional powers.

Amid these political skirmishes, the country has been treated to a new round of hairy-chested martial rhetoric. Briefing reporters Wednesday in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, a U.S. military spokesman went out of his way to disparage Iraq's military prowess. "Obviously, we know the Iraqis will pay attention to what is said here," the spokesman said. "So we'll tell something that will make them nervous: namely, that their air force and their navy stink."

That night, Bush added more insults of his own, albeit by videotape delay. Interviewed by David Frost on PBS, he said: "We have an opportunity for a more peaceful world. But . . . it won't happen if we give one single inch to placate the aggressor, the dictator, the rapist of Kuwait."

So the deadly drama continues for Americans at home. And the days stretch for those camped far away on desert sands. There, they wait to see whether it will be war or peace, life or death.