After many years in which American politics has been derided for game-playing, sound-bite mongering, narrow partisanship and just plain foolishness, the Persian Gulf debate in the Capitol has proven something surprising:
The country's politicians are still capable of carry-ing out a serious debate on a serious subject with touches of eloquence and all the gravity that the topic of war demands.
To be sure, not every speech has been exactly Churchillian. Under similar circumstances, Churchill probably would not have quoted singer Bette Midler, as Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) did, and he would not have talked about the Japanese selling hot dogs at Yosemite, as Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) did.
And Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) had a point when he complained that the debate in the House was often not a debate at all but an endless series of speeches and counter-speeches, a firefight with words used as weapons.
But after many hours of talking, it was clear that just about everyone had tried to come to grips with the others' arguments, that each side was willing to engage the other with civility and a minimum of name-calling.
There was passion about the prospect of death and destruction and about the evils of aggression. But there was also analytical coolness about where the United States would be in a month, in a year, in a decade, if it chose to use force against Iraq -- or chose not to.
There were moments that looked historic, as when Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) engaged in a polite, quietly fervent exchange with Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) about the costs and benefits of acting now. Scholars will go back to that colloquy some day when they try to judge who was right and who was wrong about the Persian Gulf.
There was ardor when freshman Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) brought the antiwar oratory of the streets to the Senate floor. There was quiet reason at work when Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) carefully weighed the arguments and came down on the side of President Bush.
In the meantime, the always professorial Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) pointed out that Iraq really wasn't so important, because "the borders of Iraq were drawn in a tent in 1925 by a British colonial officer."
It would not be noteworthy that the prospect of war should concentrate the minds and energies of the nation's legislators were it not for America's recent tradition of trivialized public discourse.
"I think it's extraordinary," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of "Eloquence in an Electronic Age" and the dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications. "This is what's been missing in our political campaigns. . . . Ideas were engaging other ideas. We've seen so little of that as a public."
For once, she added, the mass media were actually rewarding politicians who tried to convey complex thoughts, rather than just "the ones who go for sound-bites."
Also striking was the extent to which the debate lacked the ideological ferocity -- and personal vindictiveness -- of past arguments over issues like Vietnam or Nicaragua. "This crisis has come at a fortunate time because there's ideological confusion," said Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest, a conservative foreign policy quarterly. "The kaleidescope has been given a good shake and people have thus been less dogmatic."
Leo P. Ribuffo, a historian at George Washington University who has studied war debates, said he sensed a longing for public civility. "Whatever happens, no one wants the United States to go through the '60s again," he said. "That's why everyone is being serious and respectful to their opponents so far."
Ribuffo offers the rather startling judgment that this week's debate is far superior to what the country has seen in the past: "the highest quality of debate on war and peace since 1776." Ribuffo understands that such extreme enthusiasm is the sort of thing historians are skeptical of. But he supports his view by arguing that the debates before World War I and World War II "were unusually bad -- and the debate before the War of 1812 wasn't too hot, either."
James MacGregor Burns, the historian and political scientist, agreed, calling this week's discussion "much more rational and even-tempered" than the debate over America's involvement in the war against Hitler.
But John Morton Blum, a professor of history at Yale, said that before the Congress congratulated itself too much, it should remember that it was "very late" in getting around to this discussion, perhaps too late to change the course of American policy.
Indeed, a troubling note has been heard over and over this week: the argument by Specter and many other Republicans that it was too late to second-guess President Bush, that voting down the administration might hinder the quest for peace and only encourage Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
What they were suggesting is that, in its tardiness, Congress had already yielded control over foreign policy to the president. Although this argument was vigorously disputed by Democrats like Nunn, one could not help wonder if Congress's exceptional eloquence was also an empty eloquence.
Nonetheless, after a time when Congress has been derided as ineffectual, corrupt and even stupid, it was remarkable to see, as Jamieson put it, that "the caliber of individuals we've elected through this perverse electoral system is pretty high." The course America is about to take may represent genius or folly, but no one will be able to say Congress failed to air the alternatives and debate them with sobriety and conviction.Staff writer Tom Kenworthy contributed to this report.