By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/18/2005 12:56:25 PM ET 2005-05-18T16:56:25

Every theater has a backstage, Senate hearing rooms included. Behind the august chambers you see on TV are warrens of small rooms in which senators and their staff can relax, work out a deal behind closed doors, or closet themselves in old-fashioned phone booths to make private calls. Reporters aren't supposed to hang around in such places, but I did so for a while one morning last week.

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It was still early, so my eyes were drawn to a small table with a pot of coffee, milk and sugar, and a picked-over assortment of pastries. I was about to help myself - reporters are like that - when I noticed an official-looking sign behind the coffee pot: "FOR SENATORS ONLY."

The Senate is famously regarded as a club -- FOR SENATORS ONLY. That idea gives them a sense of connectedness, almost of family, that those outside the club cannot share. Their relationships often -- not always, but often -- have been more important than the party they belong to, the issue at hand, or the identity of the president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. That's the way the Framers -- fans of Plato for the most part -- wanted it: a place beyond partisanship and party, where philosopher/statesmen would reign.

It was an ideal, admittedly. There were rummies in 1789, too, and over the years I have seen a Runyanesque array of drunks, dimwits and demagogues shuffle through the chamber, standing at the mahogany desks of true giants of American history. But the idea of a Senate standing on its own, as a place apart, remained.

That spirit seems on the verge of extinction as the grinding reality of Red-Versus-Blue America crashes through the tall Senate doors in the form of the nasty confrontation over judicial nominations.

I'll leave it to others to weigh the exact measure of blame for this; I would say that both parties are at fault. The real culprits are zealots on both sides of cultural issues -- pro-and-anti abortion activists, marriage traditionalists versus gay-rights activists, august academics versus "intelligent design" creationists, to name a few -- who see every debate in public life as a "Star Wars" battle over the fate of the universe.

In that atmosphere, the human-scale courtesies of life -- so valued in the Senate -- tend to get lost. Their disappearance tears at the fabric of what was left of a patriotic middle in America. There is a gentleness that is scoffed at, but which you could -- and can -- still see in the back rooms and corridors of the Senate.

I'll give you an example. In the backroom I was loitering in the other day I encountered Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. He is the conservatives' conservative, a young Republican of the straight-ahead, take-no-prisoners new school. And yet his latest thing is looking for ways to cut deals with liberal Democrats he'd gotten to know, and learned to work with. He said that he had found common ground with -- of all people -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. They had joined together on an education-funding issue, and he was proud that they had.

He also had kind words for Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican, but one of the moderate, Middle Atlantic kind. GOP hardliners often loathe them. The tart, prosecutorial Specter is not an easy man to like, but Brownback expressed a respect -- even a fondness -- for the 75-year-old senator, who is battling Hodgkin's disease.

"You know, Arlen and I hardly agree on anything," Brownback told me. "But the longer I am around here the more I appreciate guys like Arlen. They are guys who endure, who embody the Senate and who care about the Senate deeply as an institution in our country."

If you care, too -- and you should -- you can watch CSPAN, and hope that the rest of American society doesn't finally rip to shreds what the Founders built. Hardline Republicans and Democrats BOTH insist that they want to save the Senate as we know it from procedural abuses. They both can't be right. Indeed, they're probably both wrong.

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